I’m still thinking about this happiness thing.
Even though I concluded in my essay “In Pursuit of Happiness???” that no one can define my happiness but myself, I am still wondering about happiness. How is your happiness different from mine? And more importantly, why? How do I sustain happiness once I find it? And why does it seem like happiness gets turned on and off like some unseen force is playing with the switch?
As part of my ongoing quest, I clicked on a TEDTalk by positive psychology guru Martin Seligman. I folded a load of clean laundry and listened as Seligman reiterated what I’d read before. Extremely happy people, regardless of religion, physical health, appearance, economic status, or life experience, have one thing in common: they are rich in social connections.
As Seligman went on to describe the invention of positive psychology, my mind began to wander, but then he said something that caught my attention. He stated that there is not just one type of happy life, but three.
Three kinds of happiness?????
I replayed his statement two more times to make sure I’d heard him right, and then, abandoning the laundry, got out a sheet of paper to take notes.
According to Seligman, people lead happy lives in primarily one of three ways. The first happiness path is what he calls “the pleasant life.” Those living the pleasant life are able to find their happiness by seeking pleasure and amplifying the positive aspects of their day. This is the type of happiness I’ve been exploring all these months in my essays about pleasure-seeking, self-soothing methods, and learning to savor each moment. While you can raise your pleasure quota slightly by utilizing these practices, Seligman stated that the happiness associated with the pleasant life has a set genetic quota. Either you are born a happy person like my friends Jillene, Jara, and Kim, or you aren’t, and while attempting to cultivate a positive outlook is important for everyone, it will only raise your happiness level marginally. In other words, my genes tend to see the glass as half empty no matter how many gratitude journals I fill.
A second kind of happiness is found by those who lead “a meaningful life.” These people know what their “highest strengths are, and use them to belong to and in the service of something larger,” said Seligman. It is easy to identify well-known people who fit in this category: Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. These people don’t feel complete, don’t feel happiness unless they are committed to a cause greater than themselves. As I listened to Seligman, I realized that he was describing my friend Corrie Kate. Her sense of self and well-being is most intact when she is helping coordinate an emergency rescue, pitching in at an orphanage in Ecuador, or adopting a child. While I do my best to have a caring heart like Corrie Kate, I know that I can extend myself only so far before I burn out, and am forced to retreat and regroup.
Then Seligman mentioned the last type of happy life: the life of engagement. This life includes “activities or work that engages you fully,” or, to use a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “flow.”
I perked up. I’d heard of flow, the state of consciousness where a task is experienced so deeply that everything else drops away. “‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake,” writes Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow activities are effortless, invigorating, and stimulating.
And just like that, I suddenly have a clearer understanding of this happiness thing. At least, my happiness, because I love flow. I crave flow. When I cook, read, write, walk, craft, or even organize the house for the day, I easily move into a flow state. And if I go too long without a hit of flow, I become irritable, restless, and unhappy. Most of my flow, my happiness, happens in private, but flow does not always have to be a solitary experience. My brother-in-law Brian lives a life of constant engagement, and what makes him so wonderfully special is that he has the ability to include everyone else in his flow state. This summer he began singing and playing air drums as a carload of us traveled to an event. Soon all the passengers, even my reserved husband, was playing an assigned air instrument and singing to the hits from the 80s that poured from the radio. Brian’s flow is infectious, powerful, and delivers a wonderful dose of happiness.
Since listening to Seligman’s TEDTalk, I have been paying attention to the flow in my life: honoring my need for it, and learning how to drop into the flow state more easily when alone and with others. I have discovered that the more flow I incorporate into my day, the brighter my outlook. When I am flowing, my half full glass gets filled all the way to the top.
There is so much written about happiness these days, and everyone seems to be seeking ways to be more happy. After listening to Seligman, I now wonder if some of our unhappiness stems from trying to fit into the wrong type of happy life. I’m not going to give up on my efforts to boost my appreciation and gratitude for all the blessings in my life. I think positivity is a trait to nurture and cultivate. Nor am I going to abandon my efforts to make the world a better place. We all have a responsibility to find a caring heart within us. But I also know that for me, a happy life is one rich with engagement.
For me, my true happiness lies in going with the flow.