Is there more than one way to be happy?
University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, leader of the positive psychology movement that studies emotionally successful lives instead of troubled ones, identifies 3 distinct kinds of happiness. The first is pleasure, the kind of enjoyment people seek in choosing to have fun. Pleasure-seeking behavior includes the company of friends, entertainment, good food, relaxation etc. The second aspect of happiness is engagement. Also called “flow”, this kind of happy feeling is a state of being so wrapped up in an activity that we lose ourselves in it. Playing competitive sports is one example. Some people feel that level of engagement at work, or even doing crossword puzzles. The third kind of happiness is that which gives life meaning, generally a result of acting in service of other people and higher ideals.
All three kinds of happiness are valid. Which is the most satisfying in the long run?
Prof. Seligman’s research is clear. The pursuit of pleasure provides only a temporary benefit with no lasting impact. Fun activities are wonderful in the moment but the happiness they cause does not last once the activity is over. Engagement is richer, resulting in a deeper satisfaction that often persists after the activity is finished.
It’s the third type of happiness, meaning, that provides the greatest and most enduring satisfaction. There are many examples. Every parent knows that sometimes you need to make sacrifices for the good of your children, and those sacrifices are key to the emotional rewards parenting brings. In the public arena, service that is genuinely focused on improving the lives of others enhances your own self-esteem and happiness. That’s why so many of us volunteer in all sorts of civic and service activities.
Even at your job, finding the service element makes any work more rewarding. The hairdresser who sees her job as making people feel more beautiful and confident will find work more rewarding than the one who simply cuts hair. The urban policeman who makes his city safe for residents and visitors will feel better about his work than the one who just directs traffic or gives out tickets. The corporate executive who provides valuable goods and services to individuals and families will have greater job satisfaction than the one who goes to work every day just to beat his competitor or earn a paycheck.
In your desire for happiness, which approach do you take? Are you looking just for fun? Or do you pursue meaning by serving the well-being of others?
Albert Schweitzer, the German-born doctor who devoted his life to helping the poor in Africa said, “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Prof. Seligman’s research confirms that service that generates meaning is indeed the best road to happiness.