As Positive Psychology researchers started to formally study happiness, they soon found that to adequately capture the range of positive emotions that we experience, the singular description of “happy” wasn’t going to work. Because what exactly are we talking about when we profess to be happy? Is it the emotional experience of joy and exuberance? Is it the feeling we get when we are so immersed in a positive experience that we get lost in the moment? Is it the long-lasting satisfaction we receive when contributing to someone else’s wellbeing? These examples represent the main subtypes of “happy” feelings – 1) pleasant emotions, 2) engaging experiences, and 3) meaningfulness.
The first subtype, described by researchers as “the pleasant life,” includes the experiences that we have that feel fun, enjoyable, and pleasurable.
“This is so delicious, best meal ever!”
“I’m having a blast! Woo hoo!”
“This episode of Game of Thrones is so good!”
Perhaps it’s these types of experiences that we think of most when we wish to be “happy.” A part of our brain gets activated in ways that are actually similar to drugs like cocaine, that makes us subjectively feel good. However, much like the experience with drugs, if we continue to repeat the same positive experiences over and over again, the amount of pleasure we get diminishes over time as we habituate to the experience. We get bored. In order for us to continue to enjoy these types of things, we need variation, novelty, and greater intensity to keep the positive feelings going. Also, research has suggested that we all have a genetic predisposition that determines our average lifetime happiness when it comes to these types of experiences. And at best, we can only improve from our baseline 15 to 20%, regardless of how much fun in life we try to have. So, in many ways, this type of happy is the “least” of the happinesses.
The second subtype, “the good life,” is associated with the experience of deep engagement. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading researcher in the area of Positive Psychology describes this experience as flow – the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. We might also call this being “in the Zone” or feeling “lost in the moment.” As opposed to the pleasant feelings of what we’ll call Happy Type 1, flow (Happy Type 2) has an almost paradoxical experience of “not feeling,” and sometimes a disorientation to your sense of time, though the overall experience is enjoyable. Flow feels more like, “It was so good to catch up, I can’t believe we’ve been talking for three hours.” I rehearse a guided meditation during my seminar, and always ask how long people think the exercise was. Most people’s guesses are less than half of the actual time spent meditating. This is because mindful meditation requires focus, is deeply engaging, and is usually enjoyable. The way to achieve flow is to utilize our strengths (talents, competencies, resources, etc.) and engage in an activity that is still challenging but not overwhelming. If we can stay in this sweet spot, then we are likely to experience this kind of positive engagement. Unlike Happy Type 1 feelings, Happy Type 2 feelings don’t diminish as long as we are engaged with the activity. The challenge with experiencing flow is to find ways to incorporate these optimal opportunities as consistent parts of our normal lives. People who are able to connect flow experiences with their work, play, or relationships do experience flow and its benefits more regularly. Studies that look at Positive Psychology outcomes have shown that people who frequently experience flow report greater life satisfaction. Flow is a better kind of happiness, not only because it is sustainable, but it changes the way we feel about our lives in a positive way. However, there is a happiness that is even better.
The third subtype of happiness is “the meaningful life.” Like flow, we are also utilizing our highest strengths, but unlike flow, we are using them in the service of something larger than ourselves. Unlike Happy Type 1, positive feelings are long-lasting, even when our experiences end. Also, engaging in the same activity can be equally meaningful every time. Unlike Happy Type 2, we don’t have to stay connected to the experience in order to feel good, because the effects of our kind acts may have long-term significance. Now this may seem to point towards things like social activism, altruism, and philanthropy, which definitely can create meaningfulness. But it may also sound unappealing or impractical if we personally don’t have the means or desire to give up our lives for some world-changing endeavor. However, there are common everyday experiences that can help us achieve meaning, without giving up our present life. In fact, these experiences can enhance our present life.
These everyday opportunities show up in the context of our relationships. All of our relationships.