Pursuing the meaning of happiness

Carolyn Moynihan
20 May 2011
Reproduced with Permission

Anyone who has been slightly sceptical about the current pursuit of happiness by psychologists, economists and politicians on our behalf may feel affirmed by the about-face of one of the leading lights of the happiness movement. It was Martin Seligman who, a decade or so ago, invented positive psychology and popularised his ideas in a 2002 best-seller, Authentic Happiness. Now he regrets the whole focus on "happiness" and wants us to think about "flourishing". His new book, published electronically last month, is called Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. The blurb on Amazon calls it "an electrifying new theory of what makes a good life - for individuals, for communities, and for nations."

As a matter of fact, the concept is not all that new -- it comes from Aristotle via a string of philosophers through the centuries. The Greek philosopher in discussing the good life for human beings used the word "eudaimonia" to denote the "end" to which our actions should be directed. That has often been translated as "happiness" but, since that word now mean anything from watching your favourite television serial to selling mortgages to people with no money, Seligman has joined the philosophers in drawing from the word the deeper meaning that was originally intended.

The basic problem with "happiness" is that is has become a highly subjective term. Researchers run surveys in which people are asked to keep a log of their activities and to note how they felt when doing each of them and rate them on a scale. It's true that this sometimes turns up interesting and possibly helpful findings, such as the current Harvard study that shows people are happiest when they give their full attention to the task at hand -- something a lot of us fail to do much of the time. But one time use study showed women were happiest watching Desperate Housewives (or whatever) and least happy when dealing with their children. What can you do with information like that?

Speaking of children, one of the paradoxes that drove Seligman's shift in thinking was the fact that people keep having children even though researchers keep coming up with data suggesting that raising children decreases a couple's happiness. The economist (and free enterprise advocate) Arthur Brooks came up with an answer already in his 2008 book, Gross National Happiness. "People find meaning in providing unconditional love for children. Paradoxically, your happiness is raised by the very fact that you are willing to have your happiness lowered through ears of dirty diapers, tantrums and backtalk. Willingness to accept unhappiness from children is a source of happiness." You could call this taking the long view of happiness, or being more objective about it.

Seligman agrees that meaning is the key to flourishing, though he adds four other crucial elements that we should pursue: positive emotion, engagement, relationships and accomplishment. Together they make a natty little acronym, Perma. Meaning, of course, implies values, and at this point Seligman leave us to our own devices. We should value and pursue relationships and accomplishments, he says, but it is up to us to decide of what kind they should be.

Such are the limits of psychology. But, having started out in the direction of greater objectivity about what constitutes happiness, we surely have to keep going. Not every relationship or every accomplishment, no matter how well-intended or earnestly sought, will foster human flourishing. The world is knee-deep in broken relationships and the debris of ill-conceived accomplishments (think, financial crisis).

Aristotle might tell us that the mess we are in relationally and financially is due to a lack of virtue or a misunderstanding of human nature, of its real needs and powers. To shed light on such things we need to listen to philosophers (the saner ones -- of the Aristotelian type) rather than to social scientists and politicians. We also need the religious traditions which have provided insight into the meaning of human existence itself, but which have been rudely shoved aside in the race for material wellbeing.

That materialistic and merely emotional concepts of happiness are now themselves being elbowed to the sidelines by the likes of Martin Seligman is reason to put a smile on many faces.