If someone asked you right now whether you were happy…
How would you answer?
But wait. Hold on.
What does happiness even MEAN, anyway?
For a long time, social scientists defined happiness as your answer to these two questions:
- Do you generally have more positive feelings than negative feelings?
- Are you satisfied overall with your life?
They’ve even looked at which countries are happier. The United States ranks fairly well but never makes it to the top. (Guess which countries are the happiest? Yep, Scandinavia.)
Dr. Martin Seligman thinks we can do better.
His goal used to be making people happier. And he did quite well at it. As a founder of positive psychology, he created a number of exercises that actually made people happier over time.
But that’s not good enough for him anymore.
These days, he not only wants people to be happy.
He wants them to flourish.
He wants ALL of us to live lives of love, purpose, meaning and accomplishment.
And if sometimes those goals get in the way of feeling happy, that’s okay. You don’t have to wear a smile all the time to have a great life.
In fact, Dr. Seligman thinks that the two questions I just asked you—questions that have defined the research on happiness—aren’t very good.
That’s because most of us gauge how satisfied we feel with our lives based on how we’re feeling at that moment.
So if you had a good day at work and a researcher comes up to you and asks you how happy you feel with your life, you’ll probably say you’re pretty satisfied.
But if something irritating just happened to you, you’re not going to report feeling as satisfied with your life—even though the facts of your life haven’t changed.
Our moods color how we think about life, which is why life can be great one minute and horrible the next.
Surely there’s more to life than being in a good mood.
In fact, a lot of worthwhile things in life make you feel BAD—like having children, for one.
The birth of a baby often causes a precipitous drop in happiness for couples (no doubt due to sleepless nights, stress, and complete life upheaval).
Yet no one would say that we shouldn’t have children, or that having families isn’t part of having a good life.
So maybe happiness ISN’T the end-all and be-all.
With that in mind, Dr. Seligman set out to figure out what makes a “good life.”
The kind of life that’s worth living.
He came up with 5 factors:
- Positive emotions (like happiness and optimism)
- Engagement (absorbing work or hobbies that capture your interest fully)
- Relationships (including relationships with your community)
- Meaning (feeling like you have a purpose in life)
- Accomplishments (feeling as if you’ve accomplished the goals you set out to accomplish)
Notice that happiness is just PART of a good life, not the whole enchilada.
Some people don’t feel a lot of positive emotions, but that’s okay. They’re content with where they’re at. They gain life satisfaction in other ways, like being absorbed in their work, accomplishing goals, and pursuing their mission in life.
Dr. Seligman also found that knowing your signature strengths and using them in service to a higher goal can make life feel more satisfying.
For example, if you pride yourself on being a kind person but you’re stuck in a customer service job where you’re dealing with constant complaints, you may struggle. A job at a nonprofit or a side gig as a volunteer might make your life more satisfying.
Where do you think you might be able to improve your life? Do you think you could:
- Feel happier more often?
- Spend more time on hobbies or activities that really capture your interest?
- Improve your relationships?
- Get clearer on why you’re here on this planet at this time?
- Get better at setting and pursuing goals?
Don’t beat up on yourself if you’re not happy as much as you think you should be.
As long as you feel like your life is full of meaning, purpose, satisfying relationships, and a sense of progress, you’re still flourishing.
Take it from Michelle Gielan. Happiness is more than a smiley face.
Happiness is the joy we feel as we grow toward our potential.”