The Happiness Myth Debunked: Positive Psychology
The question of how to be happy, and how to live a good life has been kicking around for eons. Back to when the Ancient Greeks were shooting the breeze in Athens, debating what type of happiness was best, there are written records of people discussing happiness and the ‘good life’.
Even earlier than that, Confucius and Buddha were exploring their thoughts and teaching their ideas on these subjects, so it seems reasonable to assume that ever since homo sapiens has been thinking and talking these subjects have been up for discussion. More recently, mainstream psychology has embraced the idea of ‘Positive’ Psychology, investigating the science of happiness and what makes life worth living – a change of viewpoint from a previous focus in psychology which often looked how to ‘fix’ us when things aren’t going well.
What do we mean by happiness?
Everyone has their own idea of happiness, and one of the interesting things I’ve found as I talk to people about it is how much the idea of happiness varies from person to person. Say “happiness” to some people and it makes them think of a transitory emotion, the feeling of excitement on Christmas day, a good night out with friends, or the warm contentment of feeling of the sun on their face. Others see it as something longer-lasting – the feeling of being content with their lives that they are meaningful and rich. In psychological terms, these two types of happiness are often referred to as Hedonic and Eudaemonia respectively, but a more accessible way to think about it may be to think about ‘pleasure’ and ‘purpose’.
Pleasure and purpose
The pleasure aspect of happiness comes from enjoying the moment, whereas the longer-term feeling of purpose and meaning in our lives is important to a sense of feeling ‘happy’ with our lives overall. Rather than arguing about which is best, it’s better to see it as a balance. We need to feel a sense of overall direction and meaning, but we also need to stop and smell the roses along the way.
If we think of happiness in these terms, this also helps to incorporate cultural differences in ideas of happiness. In the U.S. happiness tends to be seen as something associated with a state of high arousal – excitement, elation, jumping with joy. Amongst Hong Kong Chinese however, happiness is associated with calmness, peace, relaxation. There’s also a difference across ages – think of the noisy joy of a toddler who lives entirely in the moment, compared to the quiet joy of the grandparent who is watching.
A question of balance
An understanding of these two different aspects of happiness helps us to understand where sometimes we go wrong. If we prioritize short term pleasure at the expense of longer-term direction and meaning, we run the risk of using quick fixes to hide the fact that we feel a lack of purpose in our lives which ultimately leaves us feeling empty when the short-term fix wears off. But equally, spending our lives focusing on long term goals and achievement can mean that we miss the moments along the way that give us joy – we need a balance of both types of happiness.
The first myth of happiness
“This simple life hack will make you happy”
There is no simple answer to the question of how to be happy. The reality is that there’s a mix of things that we need for optimal functioning, involving pleasure and purpose, which can vary from person to person, across different cultures and across the lifespan. However, despite these differences, there are core themes that arise when we investigate what makes people happy, so the more we learn about what makes other people happy, the more we can apply this knowledge to our own situation when appropriate – the goal of positive psychology.