As we were thinking of what to write about in this week’s blog, it became rather obvious to both of us when everywhere we turned, we had little signs!
One day this week, as I got out of the pool, the bulletin board near the towels boldly stated, “Happiness is a journey, not a destination (Mark C.).” The same day, while Mary was exercising and listening to a talk, she heard someone on the radio say, “If you are doing things to be happy, you are doing them in the wrong order.” (Unknown)
Happiness is something that every human being seeks but is difficult to concretely define. What makes someone happy may be different from what makes someone else happy. Indeed, happiness is contextual and may be different each time for the same person. For example, I am happy when spending a whole day skiing on a beautiful sunny day but skiing in cold, windy weather makes me miserable. Although skiing is a sport that I enjoy, it does not elicit happiness for me every time I do it.
The University of Pennsylvania professor and founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, articulated his theory about happiness a few years ago. In his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, he attempts to make scientific sense of happiness so it can be measured and replicated. His conclusion is that, “Happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.” (1. p. 11). Positive emotion means feeling joy, ecstasy, pleasure, and other similar emotions. Engagement in his theory means feeling lost or absorbed in the moment because of being connected to the experience (or ‘flow’ as originally defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Meaning refers to feeling that what you are doing is important in some way, has a purpose or is bigger than you (1. p.11).
Another essential aspect of the theory of happiness is that the engagement facet of happiness is supported by using one’s top strengths. Seligman defines 24 different strengths or virtues that an individual may possess and when used help create engagement for the individual. If you’d like to take an assessment to help you identify your strengths, please visit Seligman’s site at: www.authentichappiness.org. You just need to register on the site. There are several other questionnaires you can complete that are related to happiness, well-being and other topics of their research.
Now you might ask, why talk about happiness? Does it really matter? We believe that happiness is a major component of wellness. From experience, we can say that when we are happy, we are kinder to others and to ourselves, our outlook on life is more positive, we’re more fun to be around, and we seem to overcome obstacles with more ease. Simply, life is better when we are happier!
So, if we want to live well, we choose to create more happiness in our lives by doing more of what creates happiness for us. In practical terms, by understanding Seligman’s theory, we can look for things that increase our positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. As firm believers in positive psychology, we advocate focusing on creating more of what you want, rather than focusing on eliminating what you don’t want.
To some people the above statement may seem naive, and they might be thinking that happiness is superficial and momentary. Embrace the broader definition of happiness. Look beyond positive emotion to create also more engagement and meaning in your life to increase happiness.
To create more positive emotion, keep in mind that what we remember in our lives are the precious moments, not the days (quote adapted from Cesare Pavese). Experiencing more happy moments will surely create a more satisfied life.
Think about the last time you were feeling happy. What was going on? What made you happy and how did it affect what you were doing and those around you? How can you re-create the feeling of this precious moment again?
To create more engagement and meaning, understand your top strengths and use them in your life, in your work and in your overall contribution to community. For example, if your top strength is discipline, lead with it. Work in a field or job that allows you to use that strength; model it and teach it to your kids; employ that skill in the service of something that is important to you such as a community project.
Since the publication of his book on authentic happiness, Seligman has been challenged to think beyond happiness to explain the goal of positive psychology, which he now defines as “flourishing by increasing positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment.” (1. p. 12) As you can see, his new theory on well-being expands beyond the authentic happiness elements with two other: positive relationships and accomplishment. We’ll talk about the Theory of Well-Being in another post when we discuss wellness, well-being, health, fitness and the other terms that we use interchangeably.
Until then, if you’d like to hear Seligman talk about positive psychology and happiness, see his TedTalk below.
- Seligman, Martin E.P., Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Free Press, New York: 2011.
- Seligman, Martin E.P., Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, The Free Press, New York: 2002.