John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


What is happiness?

Many people equate happiness with good feeling or positive emotion. But according to Martin Seligman, author of the book Flourish, happiness is more than being cheerful or smiley.

Seligman suggests that happiness is composed of five components: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment. And here's the surprising part: he says that positive emotion ranks at the
bottom of the list.

When we are deeply engaged in a task –- think of an activity where you lose track of time because you're so absorbed by it –- Seligman says that people do not, in fact, report much feeling at all. They're too submersed in the activity. Deep engagement requires a focus on something other than the self, and it usually takes us right out to the very edge of our skill. In those moments, people are not cheerful, they're absorbed.

But it's not enough to be engaged by activities. We must have meaning in our lives, too. Human beings will tolerate a great deal of hardship for the sake of what something means to them. How people knock themselves out on a job they don't like because of what it means to their family?

And relationships, at least for most of us, are a primary source of meaning. If you doubt this, just count the number of people you see on their cell phones the next time you go out into the world. These devices feed our need for connection.

you happy? If not, which part of the puzzle is missing for you?

If you decide to improve you overall level of happiness you're likely to find it frustrating because "happiness" is simply too abstract to be useful. But if you focus on the
components of happiness, as Seligman suggests, you'll have a much easier time of it. You can resolve to find tasks that engage you deeply. You can take a "meaning inventory" to determine what, if anything, needs changing. You can establish bonds with others. And you can arrange your life to maximize those accomplishments that would actually mean something to you.

This is what it means to flourish.