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Happiness; meaning, flow and pleasure.

For many years the development of psychology was driven by the the desire to understand mental illness, rather than mental well-being. For this reason, little attention was paid to happiness, which was considered to be at one end of a continuum, with misery at the other end. However this has changed, in particular since the development of positive psychology, which seeks to understand our strengths, nurture talent, and help people to get the most from life… and that includes being happy and contented. Psychologists now view happiness and misery as two parallel lines, which enables us to understand that treating depression is not necessarily the same thing as making someone happier.

In reality, we’re not very good at working out what will make us happy, as Dan Gilbert points out, we have evolved a remarkable system for imagining the future, enabling us to plan and organise, however the system has it’s flaws. Unfortunately one such flaw applies to our understanding of what will make us happy, and how happy it will make us: We tend to think that getting the things we desire will make us happy, whether it’s new possessions, taking a holiday, passing an exam or winning the lottery. Research shows that we greatly overestimate the impact these things will have on our happiness, how intensely it will be felt, and how long lasting any changes will be. In fact, even just three months after any of these events, our levels of happiness will be very close to what they were before. This is known as impact bias; a tendency to overestimate the hedonistic impact of future events. Predicting how we’re going to feel in the future is known as ‘affective forecasting’, and we’re not very good at doing this: Most people would predict being happier moving to a warm sunny climate rather than to a colder, wetter climate. Yet there’s no evidence to support this prediction, intuitive as it seems.

In a similar way, research has shown that when incomes and standards of living have risen over time, people’s levels of happiness do not rise in equal measure, but tend to follow a fairly flat line on the graph, the opposite of what most people would expect to happen as incomes rise. To understand this better, we must look at what happiness is, how we experience it, and what really makes us happy.

What makes us happy?

It’s no surprise that Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has some interesting things to say on this subject. Seligman believes there are three different ‘happy lives’ to consider, partly because different things generate these three forms of happiness; he calls them the Pleasant life, the Good life, and the Meaningful life.

The Pleasant life:

This involves having as much pleasure as possible, and the positive emotion it generates, and also developing the skills to savour these pleasures (such as mindfulness), sustaining them for as long as possible. Unfortunately, although this life of pleasure is perhaps the most obvious route to happiness, particularly from a western perspective, it has some fundamental drawbacks. The first is the fact that our genes play a significant part in our ability to gain happiness this way, accounting for around 50% of an individual’s potential. Ever noticed how some people just seem to end up happy no matter what, whilst others always seem unhappy in similar situations? Another problem is that it habituates very quickly, so if you keep seeking pleasure in the same way, you’re soon getting less and less from it. Sadly, we often don’t notice this fact, and ‘retail therapy’ can get expensive as we keep trying to generate pleasure by consuming more and more. This form of happiness also tends to fade rather than sustain, so we generally experience it in highs and lows. For these reasons, this pleasant life offers the most potential as a way of boosting our happiness levels when the other areas of our lives are optimal, rather than as a primary source of happiness.

The Good life:

This is all about being in a state known as 'flow’*, which roughly equates to everyday terms such as; ‘in the zone’, ‘in the moment’ or ‘in the groove’. This is a state of concentration and absorption, where time seems to stand still; it may be found in work or hobbies, and is generally considered to require an active role, (rather than passively watching TV, for example). Those times when you are completely absorbed in the present moment, and simply don’t seem to be aware of time passing. According to Seligman the secret to experiencing more periods of flow seems to be all about finding what your strengths are, then structuring your life around using those strengths in work, play, love and friendships. In doing this you will experience more absorption in your daily life, increasing the sense of contentment, satisfaction and even joyfulness.

The Meaningful life:

Again this involves working with your strengths, but in the service of something larger than you. This seems to tap into the way we feel the benefit of altruistic acts for much longer than we benefit from doing things that generate pleasure. It’s also worth bearing in mind that when we experience kindness from others, we tend to feel good, but it may be coloured by feelings of guilt or even obligation. When we show kindness to others, the improvement to our feelings are not usually restricted by these things, especially if we are acting in a genuine way.

Seligman’s research into overall satisfaction with life, repeated many times, has shown surprising results, quite the opposite of what had been expected. The meaningful life made the most significant contribution, followed by the good life. The pleasant life seems to contribute little to overall satisfaction with life: However, the pleasant life becomes more significant when the other two are already high.

Returning to pleasure…

…it turns out we can be fooled into experiencing it; Paul Bloom describes an interesting experiment where participants were given wine to drink, whilst inside an fMRI brain scanner. Half were simultaneously told that the wine was cheap, whilst the others were told that it was an expensive, high quality wine… Of course, they all tasted the same wine. Remarkably, for the group that were told the wine was expensive, the pleasure centres in their brains lit up far more than for the others. Quite simply, they literally experienced more pleasure from the wine, they didn’t just believe they were experiencing it: Their reality changed. Bloom suggests that the belief we have about the history of an object changes how we experience the object. This is why we can attach huge value to an original artwork, and little value to an identical fake; we value the unique act of original creativity that is present in it’s creation, and missing from the copy.

So, raising our overall level of satisfaction with life, happiness and well-being is achievable, but not necessarily in the ways that might seem obvious to most of us, thanks to the way our brains are wired. It’s not about winning the lottery, regardless of how appealing that may seem. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with having a winning ticket, but before you do, just make sure you’ve done what you can to develop the meaningful life, and the good life, so you can really savour the pleasant life.

Links for the TED Talks referred to above:

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness.

Martin Seligman: The new era of positive psychology.

Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure.

* ‘Flow’ was named by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, there’s a Wikipedia page on the subject here.