Continued from Some Happinesses Are Better Than Others – Part 1
In my last post, I described how meaningfulness, the third subtype of “happy,” is achieved by utilizing our highest personal strengths in the service of something larger than ourselves. I also stated that it is through our current relationships, all of our relationships, that we have daily opportunities for meaningful experiences. How? By positively affecting the wellbeing of those we are connected to through our interactions.
Our connections with people can be separated into primary and secondary relationships. The primary ones are our friends, family, and romantic relationships. Through our close relationships, when we give of our best selves, we can influence their lives to be better. Helping our friends when they need us. Bringing fun, relaxation and connection by hosting a get together. Raising our kids with a perspective that aims to have them become capable and compassionate future adults. Being a person that takes ownership for our romantic partner’s needs and meeting them in ways that are effective and fulfilling. In our secondary relationships (acquaintances, contacts, humankind) even small behaviors that don’t require drastic lifestyle changes can be meaningful. Make a habit of tipping more. Smile at people or make someone laugh. Practice good manners. Share. Donate. Recycle. In fact, our secondary relationships are built for meaningfulness because there’s no direct self-motivated component to our actions. Which of course brings us to the obvious connection between meaningful acts and the indirect but immense personal benefits of doing them. Our long-term needs for purpose, of values, efficacy and self-worth are met. Even more than frequent experiences of flow, the same Positive Psychology outcomes research shows that people who see their lives as meaningful also report the most life satisfaction. Also, people that have healthy relationships are happier, live longer, and have better physical and mental health. So in comparing happinesses, Happy Type 3, “the meaningful life,” is best because when you focus on the wellbeing of others, you actually improve your own. Everyone wins.
I mentioned in my post, the Value of Truth – Part 1, that many truths can be learned through scientific research, and Positive Psychology has made the links between living a meaningful life and wellbeing. I also stated that our shared human experience also confirms what is truthful, and I know that in my own experience, being a husband, a father, and in my work as a therapist I find meaning because of the contributions made to other people’s wellbeing. Lastly, I proposed that a reliable intuition also uncovers what is true. So in the words of those whose intuition we can trust:
“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” – Mark Twain
“It is important to understand how your own happiness is linked to that of others. There is no individual happiness totally independent of others.” – Dalai Lama
So we’ve learned that the positive emotion of happiness actually comes in three forms – good, better and even better. But there’s more. What is actually best is to balance and integrate all three. Research has shown that people that have good lives (Happy Type 2) and meaningful lives (Happy Type 3) experience higher levels of pleasure when engaging in Happy Type 1 activities. In other words, people that have meaning and flow in their lives, also have the most fun. To illustrate this point, I like to use an ice cream sundae analogy. Imagine that enjoyable activities are the toppings, that engaging activities are like chocolate, and that meaningful activities are like ice cream. If you just ate the toppings, that first bite might taste sweet, but it’s not that enjoyable to eat a big bowl full of just cherries, or only whipped cream, or just some sprinkles. In fact, you may even get sick of the taste after a little while. Now chocolate is pretty good by itself as a little treat, and every time you eat chocolate it’s good, but it’s not really a dessert, at least by itself. On the other hand, plain old ice cream is a great dessert. But what’s better than a scoop of vanilla ice cream all by itself? A scoop of vanilla ice cream, with some warm hot fudge, some whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry on top. In a sundae, adding the toppings makes everything a little extra special.
So, what is the truth about happiness? Not all happinesses are the same, and some happinesses are better than others. We can be happy for awhile, but not necessarily enjoy our lives or affect our health and wellbeing positively if our approach to happiness is based on seeking pleasure. But if our pursuit of happiness utilizes our highest strengths – for our own benefit and for the benefit of others, not only will we find a happiness that lasts, but we will also gain health, meaning, and life satisfaction in the process. And the best experience in life is when you can balance and integrate all three – enjoyment, engagement, and meaningfulness, and make a happiness sundae.
In future posts, we’ll continue to talk about emotions, including other positive emotions such as gratitude and love, as well as the value of unpleasant emotions, and the cost of emotional ambivalence.