More Than "Happiology"

January 17, 2014

As you might expect, I have an interest in positive psychology, the relatively new branch of psychology that focuses not on treating mental illness, but on building mental health and increasing happiness.  Positive psychology is not just “happiology”—about feeling good all the time. It strives to understand the elements of a truly satisfying life.

In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin  Seligman, a psychologist and one of the pioneers in the field of positive psychology, builds on (and explains the weaknesses of) his work on “authentic happiness theory,” refining it into what he calls well-being theory. Seligman writes, “I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” 

In Flourish, Seligman adds two more elements (Relationships and Achievement) to the three elements already named in authentic happiness theory (remember them by using the mnemonic PERMA):

  • Positive emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects)
  • Engagement (flow)
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement 
Each of these elements contributes to well-being without defining it.  Some are measured subjectively and others are measured objectively. Seligman added these additional dimensions because he feels that “life satisfaction holds too privileged a place in the measure of happiness” because “how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question.” Many people who lack a natural cheerfulness may have more engagement and meaning in their lives than those who are more outwardly “happy.”

Flourish is an interesting book, and though it’s more theory than practical application, it does contain some interactive exercises (I mentioned one of them here). The book also contains a bit of history of positive psychology and Seligman’s career, as well as a defense of positive psychology against critics.

What I took from the book was the idea that well-being was a broader, richer concept than simple “happiness,” and that you can have well-being without constantly feeling cheerful or “happy.” I don’t believe it’s possible—or even desirable—to feel happy all the time. I do, however, feel that pursing the elements of PERMA will help you build a more deeply satisfying—and, yes, happier—life.


A Global Vision of Happiness

January 14, 2013

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One of the best things about having a blog that focuses on happiness is “having” to read various happiness-themed books. I recently stumbled upon a cool one: The World Book of Happiness, edited by Leo Bormans. Bormans asked 100 experts in the field of positive psychology to sum up their work in 1,000 words or less, using terms the average person would understand. These insights were to be research based, not “spiritual philosophy.” Here are a few tidbits to whet your interest:

Once basic needs are met, more money does not equal more happiness. This is called the Happiness Paradox. (Stavros Drakopoulos)

While happiness can be pursued, we shouldn’t use the laws for outer achievement (“brute force and adrenaline-charged action”) in that pursuit. Instead, we should become “happiness detectives,” by observing our feelings, nurturing good times and always looking for new ways to increase happiness in ourselves and others. (Michael Hagerty)

In order to flourish, we should allow ourselves to feel (smile, laugh, cry when we need to), see, listen, taste and smell—participate in all the joys of life. Appreciate who and what we are, and anticipate and open ourselves to support from others. Ask for support if necessary, and provide it to those who need it. We are resilient, able to bounce back when faced with negatives, becoming stronger in the process. (D.J.W. Strumpfer)

Three universal components of happiness: Enjoyment—“possessing certain things that give one (passive) pleasure; contentedness—“the equilibrium between needs and satisfaction”; achievement—“the fulfillment of one’s capacities…doing what one enjoys.” (Doh Chull Shin)

We don’t need to feel obligated to be happy and shouldn’t think of happiness as a right. Sadness is a normal and healthy emotion, and is sometimes necessary and worthwhile. If we want to feel happy again, stop doing things that make us miserable, stop thinking about our own happiness and reach out to help someone else. (Grant Duncan)

Happiness is like a muscle—there are many things we can do to “train” it. Focus on happiness (instead of unhappiness) and it grows. The pursuit of happiness involves mind, body and spirit, and there are things we can do to nurture each of these aspects of ourselves which will help us develop greater happiness. (Miriam Akhtar)

I expect to be dipping in and out of this book for a while, and I’ll be sure to share with you any new or profound discoveries.

If you had to sum up what you’ve learned about happiness, what would you write?