Recent research into happiness has revealed some surprising results. The key finding seems to be that interventions designed to help people become less miserable (i.e. come out of depression) can not be relied upon to make you happier. To realise increased, sustainable happiness, requires a different set of activities.
Professor Martin Seligman is at the forefront of this research and his talk on TED and related papers and books, make for fascinating reading. If you haven’t discovered TED yet, then I recommend taking a look here.
Seligman summarises the pursuit of a happier life using the equation Happiness = Pleasure + Engagement + Meaning.
‘Pleasure’ refers to a life in pursuit and appreciation of pleasurable activities such as travel, being with friends and family, socialising and the arts. Note that he refers to both pursuit and appreciation. Learning to appreciate pleasures in life is as important as being exposed to them. Happy people appreciate things for what they are, in the moment. Taking everyday scenes or events for granted is not helpful in the pursuit of happiness.
‘Engagement’ refers to a life lived in the ‘zone’, where time stands still. This is the place where we become totally absorbed in our work or leisure pursuits to the point where distractions are ignored and we feel a sense of deep pleasure with the task in hand and the outcomes of our endeavours.
‘Meaning’ refers to a life in pursuit of meaningful encounters, events or pursuits. This is often where altruism plays a part. It is also where we utilise our strengths to do work (paid or otherwise) that we believe is for the greater good of society. That could be as a janitor or as a volunteer for a local hospice. Meaning-making is a very personal thing.
Seligman is keen to point out that his research indicates the pursuit of all three lives (pleasure, engagement and meaning) are all important for lasting, elevated levels of happiness. Pursuing just one or two is not going to work. It seems that when all three are combined, happiness is elevated to a place above where one might expect to be if one looked at each in isolation. There is a compound effect.
One of Seligman’s many papers details the types of habits one might develop in order to experience elevated, long-lasting happiness. He has conducted rigorous, placebo-controlled tests to prove their efficacy and has many more tests yet to perform. This is an extremely interesting and exciting area of research and development for the field of psychology.
It is also extremely useful and relatively straightforward advice that each of us can follow in our pursuit of a more consistent level of overall happiness.