The Psychology of Happiness … authentic happiness is about more than pleasure, it requires engagement, and a sense of purpose too

February 27, 2020

Martin Seligman is a pioneer of “positive psychology.”

He famously developed a systematic theory about why happy people are happy, and used scientific method to explore it. Through the use of exhaustive questionnaires, Seligman found that the most satisfied, upbeat people were those who had discovered and exploited their unique combination of “signature strengths,” such as humanity, temperance and persistence.

This vision of happiness, he says, combines the virtue ethics of Confucius, Mencius and Aristotle with modern psychological theories of motivation. He concluded that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated:

  • the Pleasant Life … positive emotions, pleasure … feeling more
  • the Good Life … togetherness, engagement … contributing more
  • the Meaningful Life … fulfilment, meaning … achieving more

 

The Pleasant Life is realised if we learn to savour and appreciate such basic pleasures as companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs.

We can remain pleasantly stuck at this stage or we can go on to experience the Good Life, which is achieved through discovering our unique virtues and strengths, and employing them creatively to enhance our lives. According to modern theories of self-esteem life is only genuinely satisfying if we discover value within ourselves. Yet one of the best ways of discovering this value is by nourishing our unique strengths in contributing to the happiness of our fellow humans.

Consequently the final stage is the Meaningful Life, in which we find a deep sense of fulfilment by employing our unique strengths for a purpose greater than ourselves.

He calls the combination a “Full Life“, or authentic happiness.

In his recent book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman shares updates his theory of well-being. In an excerpt from the book he describes the goal of positive psychology: to increase not just human happiness, but human flourishing.

He introduces a model called “PERMA“:

“PERMA” stands for the five essential elements that contribute to individual or team well-being. These are:

P – Positive Emotion

This element is, perhaps, the most obvious connection to happiness. Focusing on positive emotions is more than smiling: it is the ability to remain optimistic and view one’s past, present, and future from a constructive perspective.A positive view can help in relationships and work, and inspire others to be more creative and take more chances.

In everyone’s life, there are highs and lows; focusing on “the lows” does increase your chances of developing depression, although the equation for depression is very complicated.Regardless, there are many health benefits to optimism and positivity.How do we distinguish between pleasure and enjoyment for this? Pleasure is connected to satisfying bodily needs for survival, such as thirst, hunger, and sleep. Whereas enjoyment comes from intellectual stimulation and creativity.

When a child completes a complex lego car that requires their concentration, for example, they might beam with joy and satisfaction from their work.This type of positive emotion is crucial. It can help people enjoys the daily tasks in their lives and persevere with challenges they will face by remaining optimistic about eventual outcomes

E – Engagement

Activities that meet our need for engagement flood the body with positive neurotransmitters and hormones that elevate one’s sense of well-being. This engagement helps us remain present, as well as synthesize the activities where we find calm, focus, and joy.People find enjoyment in different things, whether it’s playing an instrument, playing a sport, dancing, working on an interesting project at work or even just a hobby.

When time truly “flies by” during an activity, it is likely because the people involved were experiencing this sense of engagement. We all need something in our lives that absorbs us into the current moment, creating a ‘flow’ of blissful immersion into the task or activity. This type of ‘flow’ of engagement stretches our intelligence, skills, and emotional capabilities

R – Relationships

Relationships and social connections are crucial to meaningful lives.Too often, the pursuit of happiness has this Western bias of “individuality” where each person steers their personal happiness ship to shore. This is not realistic. We are social animals who are hard-wired to bond and depend on other humans. Hence, the basic need for healthy relationships.We thrive on connections that promote love, intimacy, and a strong emotional and physical interaction with other humans. Positive relationships with one’s parents, siblings, peers, coworkers, and friends is a key ingredient to overall joy. Strong relationships also provide support in difficult times that require resilience.

In an interview with Dr. Mitch Printein’s about his course on the psychology of popularity, Printein explained the research on pain centers in the human brain.Basically, our pain centers become activated when we are at risk of isolation. From an evolutionary perspective, isolation is the worse thing we could do for survival.These activation centers are like fire alarms in the body, discouraging people to continue feeling this pain, and ideally, reconnect socially with someone or a group. We need, neurologically, to know that we belong to a group; it helps us feel safe and valued, and has for millions of years.

M – Meaning

Having an answer as to “why are we on this earth?” is a key ingredient that can drive us towards fulfillment.Religion and spirituality provide many people with meaning, as can working for a good company, raising children, volunteering for a greater cause, and expressing ourselves creatively.Unfortunately, the media worships glamour and the pursuit of material wealth, impacting many people to feel like money is the gateway to happiness.

While we do need money to pay for basic needs, once those basic needs are met and financial stress is not an issue, money is not what provides people with happiness.Understanding the impact of your work and why you chose to “show up at the office” may help you enjoy the tasks and become more satisfied with what you do. Whether you work in an office or not, think of what you spend most of your time doing. What does that activity provide you with?

Check out Itai Ivtzan’s Awareness-Meaning Therapy if you want more resources on this weighty aspect of happiness. His video in that link on “Awareness is Freedom” has provided inspiration to reflect and change for thousands of people.A – AccomplishmentsHaving goals and ambition in life can help us to achieve things that can give us a sense of accomplishment. You should make realistic goals that can be met and just putting in the effort to achieving those goals can already give you a sense of satisfaction when you finally achieve those goals a sense of pride and fulfillment will be reached.Having accomplishments in life is important to push ourselves to thrive and flourish.