The meaning of being happy

Delineating happiness, author and positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, provides insights into different ways to achieve it

November 10, 2017 01:35 am | Updated 01:35 am IST

Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist, talks of how happy people can get happier in his book “Flourish”.

Seligman says, “...starting about six years ago, we (positive psychologists) asked about extremely happy people. How do they differ from the rest of us? It turns out there's one way, very surprising — they're extremely social.”

But who is happy? Seligman defines it thus, “I believe there are three different — I call them ‘different’ because different interventions build them, it's possible to have one rather than the other — three different happy lives.”

“The first happy life is the pleasant life. This is a life in which you have as much positive emotion as you possibly can, and the skills to amplify it. The second is a life of engagement: a life in your work, your parenting, your love, your leisure; time stops for you. And third, the meaningful life.”

The pleasant life is as best as we can find it. Seligman says “It is about having as many of the pleasures as you can, as much positive emotion as you can, and learning the skills that amplify them...It has drawbacks: it is about 50 percent heritable, and, in fact, not very modifiable. Second, is that positive emotion habituates. It habituates rapidly, indeed.”

The second life, Seligman says, is the Eudaemonian flow. That is to say, “'s distinct from pleasure in a very important way: pleasure has raw feel — you know it's happening. But — during can't feel anything. You're one with the music. Time stops. You have intense concentration. And this is indeed the characteristic of what we think of as the good life. And we think there's a recipe for it, and it's knowing what your highest strengths are — and then re-crafting your life to use them as much as you possibly can. Re-crafting your work, your love, your play, your friendship, your parenting.”

Seligman says, “The third path is meaning. This is the most venerable of the happinesses, traditionally. And meaning, in this view, consists of — very parallel to Eudaemonia — it consists of knowing what your highest strengths are, and using them to belong to and in the service of something larger than you are.”

Seligman finds that the life satisfaction that people have is different in each case, “...It turns out the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest. The pursuit of engagement is also very strong.”

The clinching question Seligman asks is, “Does physical health, morbidity, how long you live and productivity follow the same relationship? That is, in a corporation, is productivity a function of positive emotion, engagement and meaning? Is health a function of positive engagement, of pleasure, and of meaning in life? And there is reason to think the answer to both of those may well be yes.”

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