Eating ice cream, “being the ball,” and volunteering: Defining Three Concepts of Happiness

Writing down “Three Good Things” once a week has been shown in research studies to be a simple and effective way to boost happiness.  But how is a subjective concept like “happiness” to be precisely defined?   Thinking about happiness in three distinct ways can help us to better understand this complex concept and achieve a richer life in the process.

The Pleasant Life is the smiling Hollywood portrait of happiness.  It’s often the first view of happiness that many people imagine for themselves.  It could be a delicious gourmet meal, a hilarious comedy film, a four bedroom house in the suburbs, or a relaxing day at an idyllic sandy beach.  The pleasant life is easy to spot, and is noted for the focus on pleasure and the related positive emotions.

The Engaged Life means fully using your strengths in challenging ways.  If you’ve ever become completely absorbed in solving a business problem, having a compelling conversation with a friend, or getting “into the zone” on the athletic field, you’ve experienced flow.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (CHEEK-sent-mə-HYE-ee) of Claremont University, the thought leader behind the concept of  flow says “…the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Ironically, during full engagement, there tends to be an absence of strong emotion because of the total loss of self-consciousness.  It is only after the flow activity has ended that it is described as fun and exciting (which may be why it’s so powerful a habit to savor the moment by recalling it and writing it down as one your weekly Three Good Things).

The Meaningful Life means using your time, energy, and strengths in service of something bigger than yourself.  Not all of us will become a full-time icon of The Meaningful Life like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, or Dr. Paul Farmer, modern day physician to the poor, but take a moment to think back with contentment to the last time you volunteered for something you care about.  How did it feel then?  How does it feel now?  Similar to the flow state, pursuing the Meaningful life isn’t necessarily associated with emotionally positive signals like laughter and smiles at the time you’re doing it, because it can be hard work.  Perhaps the greatest lesson of the meaningful life is that we can temporarily become so absorbed in the people or purpose we serve that we forget for a moment about our own egos and happiness.

Write Weekly. All three paths are valid and important to living the fullest life possible. Psychologists have shown, however, that the Engaged Life and the Meaningful Life play the biggest roles in overall life satisfaction.  Once a week, take a moment to journal Three Good Things that happened, one from each area of happiness.  It’s a simple and powerful way to keep yourself on track in 15 minutes per week.

Posted in Positive Psychology

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