The Three Kinds of Happiness… and the Two that Last

The TEDTalk 2004 video below by positive psychologist Martin Seligman is, by far, the best explanation of happiness in everyday language, but backed by science, that I have ever seen. Using what I’ve learned, I was able to rationalize why I’m generally such a happy camper despite not having some of the elements people deem to contribute most to happiness in life, like love from a partner, kids, even pets, pleasures from alcohol, drugs, gambling, even coffee, etc. For my own reference, I’ll summarize the video below before writing out my deductions that led to conclusions just mentioned about my life, but also reflect on the happiness and lifestyles content mentioned in the video from other developments in positive psychology since the video I have learned. I would highly recommend watching the video, though. Start from 2m 45s if you just want the core of what I am talking about as it’s a bit slow to start before it gets really fascinating!

Positive psychology is about helping people without psychological problems become happier, compared to old school psychology of helping people with psychological problems eliminate those problems to some neutral state. In plain language, it’s about helping “normal” people become happier, rather than helping unhappy people to a neutral state where they are neither happy nor unhappy. From what I understood, those unhappy people being helped get happier in becoming less unhappy, but the therapy lets them go once they are no longer unhappy rather than take them to happiness. You don’t generally ask for therapy when even somewhat happy, to become happier. That’s why old school psychology stopped there, and that’s where positive psychology picks it up.

In positive psychology, there are three kinds of happiness, of which only two are lasting:

  1. Pleasure – as many pleasures as possible, and try to amplify them. It’s heritable, not very modifiable and habituates. That is, it’s a bit like you have it or you don’t, to whatever extent you have it. You can’t fix it much. And it wears off like taking the same drug and dosage all the time. Research shows this type of happiness has marginal impact on lasting happiness of people.
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  2. Engagement – in your work, relationships like parenting or love, leisure. In the engagement, time feels like it stops for you, and you can do this for quite a lot of time, with a lot of productive and enjoyable results and little consequence (unless you were to dysfunctionally neglect life basics for this). You can change your level of this type of happiness by quite a bit, for long or short terms, by putting to use your Signature Strengths (Top 5 or 7 Character Strengths) more often, in any way, new or old. This kind of happiness has proven to last by research.
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  3. Meaning – a meaningful life. This is similar to Engagement, but it is about using your Signature Strengths in the service of something greater. Seems some people can derive lasting happiness with using their Signature Strength in the immediate world around them, and some need to use it towards a higher purpose, whether just grander in scope, or grander in the sense of the divine, to derive lasting happiness. This kind of happiness, like Engagement, has been shown to last by research.

 

What one needs for lasting happiness can probably be summarized as a minimum quota for each individual of mostly Types 2 & 3, with the proportion wildly variable person to person, though some of Type 1 probably wouldn’t hurt, either. That’s my summary from what was said, not anything actually said that did not address a formula for happiness. However, my summary is not only plausible, it is logical. Both, Types 2 & 3 contribute to lasting happiness, so having some of one, the other, or both, has to contribute to lasting happiness. How much of one type and/or the other will vary, as well as the total amount between the two, then gives you all the flexibility possible to account for our individuality. As for Type 1, for most people, a little bit of it probably wouldn’t hurt. Most of us do at least one of sex, drugs, alcohol, coffee, gambling, get social media “likes” among other pleasure type activities. A lot of Type 1 happiness, on the other hand, is probably destructive by reducing your capacity for Types 2 and/or 3 happiness, and overall lasting happiness.

At a finer and more general level, though, happiness comes from being able to utilize your Signature Strengths (i.e. your Top 4 or 7 Character Strengths) that are interpreted to have the most meaning to you. With meaning in what you do, you are generating Type 3 happiness for yourself in a subconscious way, at least, even if whatever it is you’re doing may not have a clear purpose or meaning to it. Type 1 or pleasure happiness from the way it is defined, would’t generally require much of any Character Strength, with the sole goal being a good feeling for the moment, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t last.

 

My situation

The generalization of the three types of happiness, what is in each, and their respective impact on lasting happiness, work well to help me understand my situation for why I’m generally quite happy despite not engaging in a lot of common pleasure activities like drinking alcohol or coffee, doing drugs, gambling, etc., nor having a partner, children, pets, many close friends, or Parents nearby with whom to engage. My general and lasting happiness come from being engaged in pursuits that use MY Signature Strengths in which I can easily immerse myself, for the potential greater good of it being treasured by society after my life time, like artistic endeavours. The latter is only a possibility I believe has potential, but that confidence in my ability to succeed is like icing on top of the cake that is happiness I get while pursuing my interests, and rewards of their recognized merit today. Without a lot of common relationships like partners and children in my life, I have a lot of time. I use that time quite efficiently to engage in those activities that use my Signature Strengths, to produce what I believe will have value beyond my life time. I do have some Type 1 happiness, but they are variations of the common ones, like drinking Coke (in moderation) rather than coffee (cold caffeine rather than hot). It may sound weird to you, but same purpose, process and outcomes!

Understanding my happiness through a rationalization like this has been a light bulb moment. Intuitively, I’ve known this and believed about a decade ago, I could forsake the pursuit of love in the traditional province in which I live where the bias was far more than I could accept, if I could find ways to leave an immortal legacy, for lack of wordsmithing into some less grand and egotistical terminology. I’m not thinking I might leave a legacy as grand as Bob Dylan, Picasso or anything like that. Just enough things to be noteworthy. To put it in another way, those who may forsake me, when looked at in the bigger of history, in the end, it will be they who will be forsaken ultimately, by history, and not me. So far, it has worked. It doesn’t look like my belief will collapse, but if it should, it will only be in my final moments, should I have the luxury to reflect in dying, will I be unhappy. While dying unhappy isn’t generally well-regarded in society, if it were only for the final moments, what would it matter to me? I will not be around to face the consequences. 🙂

 

To see more posts related to the Science of Well-being course, please click here.

And click here if you want to register for the Science of Well-being course, by Professor Laurie Santos, free on Coursera!

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