“We hold these truths to be self-evident—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
—American Declaration of Independence
It is said by some people that we can’t or shouldn’t pursue happiness, that it is the by-product of hard work or some other aspect of life.
On the other hand, psychologists and coaches are very successful at relieving depression or teaching ways of living, with the aim of helping people achieve happiness. Perhaps it is the very concept of happiness that is at the core of the mystery.
We all know that happiness takes different forms. There is the complete arousal kind of happiness of people who enjoy excitement and social events. Then there is the quieter kind of happiness enjoyed by more solitary folk. Most people aren’t really aware of how much information is out there on happiness research, and when they hear about it, most of them reply with a comment like, “That’s obvious.” With a smile, I suggest instead that most of the more obvious things seem that way after they have been discovered, compared with thoughts from before.
Admittedly, some discoveries really are obvious; being unemployed or divorced makes people unhappy, even though there are a limited number of occasions where these situations ultimately lead to happiness. However, there have been some discoveries in research that are more interesting than others. In his book, the Psychology of Happiness, Michael Argyle lists the following as examples of less obvious discoveries:
- For the most part, money does not make people happy
- Winning a lottery makes people less happy
- Happiness is partly instinctive
- Happy folk live longer
- So do people who go to church
- Having kids has no overall effect on happiness; it is the stage in the family life cycle that determines it
- Older people are happier than younger people
- Watching TV soap operas is beneficial
- What people think makes them happy or unhappy
If you were to check with Martin Seligman, the father of the modern psychology of happiness, he would tell you that there are four theories of happiness. Three are traditional and one encompasses them all. Which one you live has important implications for how you lead your life. Here they are for you to consider.
Hedonistic Happiness Model
First, there is hedonism. The Hedonism Theory says happiness is a matter of how you feel in the moment, a completely subjective feeling. A happy life focuses on increasing feelings of pleasure and reducing feelings of pain. A happy person smiles a lot, is cheerful, eager, and optimistic. Their pleasures are deep and wide ranging, their agonies rare and low level when they experience them. You see it in movies and in mass consumerism. The big question is about whose life it is—the one experiencing it or the person seeing it. Who is the judge?
The Hedonism Theory says happiness
is a matter of how you feel in the
moment, a completely subjective feeling.
Imagine this. You are part of a research project and researchers ping you at various times during the day. They ask you how much pleasure or pain you are feeling at that moment. It is called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) and its aim is to determine the estimated total of your experienced happiness over the week. Then they also ask the same people at the end of the week, “how happy was your week?” Your reflective feelings of your own happiness usually differ quite a bit from the deduced total of your experienced happiness.
Remember your last vacation, they ask? “Yeah, it was f-ing great!” you answer, even though if the researcher pinged you in the middle of your trip, the mosquitoes, the expensive food, the glare and sun, the overpriced drinks and snarky bartender experience might have given a different answer. To the person doing the research, hedonism becomes a measure of your “objective happiness” for a set period of time, like your vacation. They add up all your answers during the period and bingo, you have your answer. So, the calculated answer becomes the measure for the truth of how actually happy you were on your vacation. From this perspective, the person experiencing the events are always right.
The problem facing a hedonist is that when you wish someone a happy life, childhood, or even only a week, you aren’t just wishing that they accumulate the proper number of pleasurable events, regardless of how or when those events occur over their life span, or what it means to the person overall. You can look at it like this: imagine two lives, with the exact same number and scale of momentary pleasures. One shows a life of gradual decline, e.g., great childhood, carefree youth, difficult adulthood followed by a miserable old age, while the other is a story of incremental improvement, the same story in reverse. The difference between the two lives is a matter of direction and you can’t discern the difference from any individual moment. You only see the difference by a retrospective view of the life as a whole.
With this in mind, the main challenge to the Hedonism Theory of Happiness are Ludwig Wittgenstein’s last words: “Tell them it was wonderful!” He was, by all accounts, an utterly miserable person who led a life of negative emotions. Hedonism can’t manage that type of retrospective review without labeling it a vulgar mistake in judgement.
Desire Happiness Model
Desire Theory does little better than hedonism. Desire Theory tells us that happiness is a matter of getting what you want. What you want is left up to you. Desire Theory actually incorporates hedonism when what you want is lots of pleasure and very little pain. Like hedonism, Desire Theory explains why a Hershey bar is preferable to a bloody nose. However, hedonism and Desire Theory pretty quickly start to diverge.
Desire Theory actually incorporates
hedonism when what you
want is lots of pleasure and very little pain.
Hedonism maintains that pleasure over pain is the recipe for happiness even if it isn’t what you really want. Desire Theory claims that the simple gratification of a desire contributes to your happiness regardless of the amount of pleasure (or displeasure) involved in its fulfillment. One advantage that jumps right out of Desire Theory is that with it, you can make sense of Wittgenstein’s comment. He wanted truth, illumination, struggle, and purity. He didn’t really care for, or desire pleasure. His life could be described as “fabulous” according to Desire Theory because he gained more truth and illumination than most of us, even though as a “negative emotion,” he found a great deal less pleasure and a lot more pain than most people could ever imagine. Just read his history from the link and see what I mean. By the standards of most folks, he was completely miserable.
So, the Desire Theory’s criterion for happiness changes from hedonism’s amount of pleasure felt, to the somewhat less idiosyncratic, how well your desires are satisfied.
Here is the problem with the Desire Theory. It is that you might desire only to collect shotguns, or orgasms, or only to listen to Gregorian chants, or to count four-leaf clovers all day. The world’s largest collection of any of those things, no matter how “satisfying,” doesn’t appear to add up to a happy life by the standards of most people.
Objective List Happiness Model
Objective List Theory puts happiness outside of feeling, and into a list of “truly valuable” things in the real world, i.e., tangible things. Things that lead to your well-being. It says that happiness is comprised of a life that achieves certain things that are considered valuable to most of us. The list could include:
- Career accomplishments
- Freedom from disease and pain
- Material comforts
- Civic spirit
- Good conscience
So here is a thought exercise. Think about all those abandoned kids living in Africa, perhaps the ones living in Luanda, Angola. After 30 years of civil war the country is now flush with petro-dollars and business people from all over the world now live there in luxury apartments. Yet if you read the articles in the newspapers (at least before the election started to take up all the air in the room), you would find stories about thousands of parentless kids from rural areas living on the streets of the Angolan capital. You can probably imagine how they live, dressed in discarded rags, spending nights sleeping along the bay to the sounds of the ocean, spending their days foraging for food through mounds of garbage, trying to survive day today in a world that couldn’t care less.
It is conceivable, from one jaded view, that their little lives, obsessed with meeting their momentary needs, adventurously roaming in gangs, casual sex, with no thought for tomorrow, could be considered, subjectively, “happy” from either the Hedonism or Desire theory point of view. But no civil human would ever classify such an existence as “happy” and the Objective List Theory tells you why. Those kids have been deprived of many, or likely most, of the things that would go on any of our lists of what is worthwhile in life.
It isn’t hard to see the Objective List’s focus on things objectively valuable as a good thing. That being said, isn’t a big part of how happy we judge ourselves or another person’s life to be, we do have to consider feelings and desires, however ill-considered?
Authentic Happiness Model
This idea holds that there are three distinct kinds of happiness:
- The Pleasant Life (pleasures)
- The Good Life (engagement)
- The Meaningful Life
The first two are completely subjective, but the third is at least partly objective and is based on belonging to and serving something larger and more worthwhile than the just your own pleasures and desires.
Can you see how Authentic Happiness synthesizes all three traditions? Consider:
- The Pleasant Life is about happiness in Hedonism’s sense
- The Good Life is about happiness in Desire’s sense
- The Meaningful Life is about happiness in Objective List’s sense
To top it off, Authentic Happiness further allows for the “full life.”
- A life that satisfies all three criteria of happiness
It really is an elegantly simple model based on three conduits:
- Positive emotion leading to a pleasant life
- Flow leading to an engaged life
- Purpose leading to a meaningful life
In short, the Authentic Happiness model says that you can achieve happiness in your life by pursuing one or more of these three pathways. It means that even if you don’t experience much positive emotion in your life, you can still be happy by engaging activities which absorb you fully, or by finding meaning in life by using your strengths in service of something larger.
So in your pursuit of happiness, keep in mind that of all the theories of happiness, essentially all-encompassing Authentic Happiness Theory with all its attributes is probably the one that will help you find—or at least get close to—the ever elusive true happiness.
What say you?. What kind of happy are you? How d
o you like living that way?
Give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.
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Lowenstein, G. Emotions in Economic Theory and Economic Behavior
Argyle, M. The Psychology of Happiness
Seligman, M. Authentic Happiness
Jayawickreme E., Pawleski J. Can Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach Be Integrated Within a Complete Positive Psychological Theory of Happiness?