By Mary Jaksch
This is the first of a seven-part series on the Secrets of Wellbeing. The reason I’m launching into this series is because I’m excited about what is happening in the field of psychology and how new research supports ancient teachings.
A new direction called Positive Psychology has started to take centre stage. Instead of looking at problems and how to fix them, Positive Psychology investigates what allows us to experience life at its best. In this series I’ll discuss what we can learn from this research.
What is happiness?
This question is important for each of us because our view of happiness determines how we live our life.
As Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, there are three main ways how people view happiness. Read on to find out which one of these three ways describes the way you see happiness.
The Pleasant Life or the ‘life of enjoyment’
In this way of life we seek out pleasures and try to avoid pain. The great thing about this way of life is that we truly taste and enjoy the special moments. Like starting a powder run on a snowboard or sharing a laugh with your partner.
But there are some problems with this view of happiness. One is that pain is inevitable in life: relationships end, health can be precarious, and death is certain. This means that if we expect to gain happiness only from pleasure, we are ill equipped to deal with suffering.
The other problem is that the sum of our actual experiences, and how we judge those experiences in retrospect can be radically different. Seligman gives the following example:
When asked about a vacation – so he explains – you might answer, “It was great!”, even though the flow of experiences at the time may have been a series of unpleasant moments, such as sunburn, mosquito bites, upset stomach, scary situations, and a fear of blowing your budget.
I think the same goes for pleasant experiences. I don’t know how it is for you, but after about a week of lying about on a tropical beach I tend to get restless. I miss being creative and productive. So, even though there may be a constant flow of pleasant moments, my overall experience is that of feeling unfulfilled.
The Good Life, or the ‘life of engagement’
This is a life where we find out what our signature strengths are and shape our life accordingly. This leads to flow – which means that we are at one with ourselves. When this happens, time stops. We feel at home, and self-consciousness fades away.
But even when we develop flow, there can be moments when it isn’t enough. We see time leaking away and begin to wonder, “Is this all there is to life? Or is there more?”
The Meaningful Life, or ‘life of affiliation’
This way of life means using your signature strength in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are. As Martin Seligman says, “Joining and serving in things larger than you that you believe in while using your highest strengths is a recipe for meaning.” If you live life like this, you leave a legacy.
What legacy will you leave?
I’m sure you will appreciate that each of these different views of happiness can shape our life in a particular way.
Authentic happiness is made up of all these three strands.
You might like to look at how these three strands play out in your life. Are they in balance? Is one of them stronger than the rest?
What are your thoughts on happiness? I’d be interested to know.
Check out the following posts in the ‘Secrets of Wellbeing’ series: