Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Are You On A Pathway To Happiness?

February 1, 2005

The core ingredients of happiness. Psychologist Martin Seligman believes that people need to work with three components of happiness: 1) getting more pleasure out of life, 2) becoming more engaged in what you do, and 3) finding ways to make your life more meaningful.

Seligman cites the research of Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on how we create a positive state of well-being or "being in the flow" by feeling completely engaged in pursuits that are creative, playful, or meaningful.

Seligman believes that for greatest happiness people need to find strengths and virtues and apply them in everyday life. He helps people determine their core values and strengths by offering a free test at his website, www.authentichappiness.com. He feels that interpersonal qualities such as kindness, gratitude and capacity for love contribute more to happiness than cerebral virtues such as love of learning and curiosity.

Experiencing self. Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman finds that actual experience and memories operate on different tracks and affect happiness in different ways. To construct a narrative of our lives and make sense of our experience, we focus on the most intense moments or the way an experience ends.

Kahneman feels that well-being is a product of "focal time" or how we direct our attention. Our experiencing self prefers the pleasure of absorbing events or captivating interactions while our evaluating self prefers the things that make life easier or that we are familiar with.

His basic suggestion for happiness is that we spend our time, money and attention on the day-to-day enjoyment of life and by making choices to be in activities that engage rather than numb our minds.

Remembering self. Seligman feels the "remembering" self as a surer pathway to happiness. To him, memories are more than the sum total of experiences. Happy, satisfied lives depend more on how we evaluate experience in terms of depth of involvement and meaning than just the pleasurable quality of the moment.

Which is better? Eager anticipation and contentment with life or finding joy in the moment. Both may be right. They both include active engagement; to live in the moment and to live with purpose.

Take this test. Read the following five statements from the Satisfaction of Life scale developed by University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener. Then use a 1-to-7 scale to rate your level of agreement with 1 being not at all true and 7 being absolutely true.

1. In most ways my life is close to ideal.

2. The conditions of my life are excellent.

3. I am satisfied with my life.

4. So far I have gotten the most important things I want in life.

5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Scoring: 31-35: Extremely satisfied with life; 26 to 30: very satisfied; 21 to 25 satisfied; 20 is the neutral point; 15 to 19: slightly dissatisfied; 10 to 14: dissatisfied; 5 to 9: very dissatisfied.

Research findings. Diener’s research findings show that once you get enough money (up to about $50,000 in the US) to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of middle class life, more money does little to raise life satisfaction. If making money interferes with vacations, leisure time, exercise, volunteering, and an active social life then it can detract from happiness.

Education and high IQ don’t contribute much to happiness.

Older people are happier than younger people. Our aging brain urges us to pay more attention to good things and to focus on the moment.

Married people are generally happier than singles and happily married couples are the happiest.

Balmy weather is irrelevant to happiness though most Californians and envious Midwesterners believe otherwise.

Religious faith contributes to happiness by giving meaning to life and by providing a network of social support network.

Diener’s biggest finding was that commitment to friends and family and spending time with them are important to happiness. Social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support are vital to happiness.

Can we make ourselves happier? University of Minnesota researcher, David Lykken has determined we have a happiness "set" point, fixed by temperament and early life experiences. Thrilling accomplishment, joyful experiences or unmitigated tragedy may alter our feelings of well-being for a while but we generally settle back to our set point.

We overestimate the impact of good events and underestimate how resilient we are when we deal with life’s traumas. Lykken feels that only 10 to 15 percent of our subjective well-being may be under our control.

Two events knock people persistently below their set point; widowhood and job loss. It takes a widow five to eight years to regain her previous sense of well-being. Effects of job loss have an impact long after an individual has returned to the work force.

University of California at Riverside psychologist Sonia Lyubomirsky suggests the following strategies to consciously raise our happiness set point.

1. Count your blessings. 2. Practice acts of kindness. 3. Savor life’s joys. 4. Express gratitude and appreciation frequently to key individuals in your life. 5. Learn to forgive and let go. 6. Invest time and energy in friends and family. Feeling connected to other people is essential. 7. Take care of your body. 8. Develop strategies for finding meaning and coping with stress and hard times.