Sometimes just being happy is hard enough. Figuring out how to have a happy life can seem downright overwhelming.
In his book, Authentic Happiness, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman (the Big Kahuna of happiness research) says that there are four types of happy lives.
That's right — not only do we have a blueprint for what makes a happy life, you even get four choices. That doesn't mean they're all created equal. As you move down the list, the lives get better — but more challenging. The first three all have big strengths — and big weaknesses.
And then there's No. 4 (music swells): The Full Life. It's got it all — but, of course, it's the trickiest to achieve.
Ready for a happy life that works for you? Let's break the four down, see which blueprint suits your needs, and find out what life is like for the happiest people on the planet.
Alrighty, so what's behind door No. 1?
Happy Life No. 1: "The Pleasant Life"
The goal is life as one long vacation. You want as many positive feelings and bodily pleasures as you can. Tasty food, good beer, smiles, massages, and laughs. No regrets, no worries, and a head full of positive thoughts.
From Authentic Happiness:
The pleasant life: a life that successfully pursues the positive emotions about the present, past, and future.
So let's say this is your ideal life. How do you get there? Researchers call it "Pleasant activity training" but I call it "things that feel good, do them more often."
Yes, it sounds stupidly simple but don't gloss over it, internet skimmer. Research shows that often you don't actually do what you enjoy the most — you do what is easiest. You might love going to the beach, but TV is quicker. If you want The Pleasant Life, make more time for the things that give you the most pleasure.
And for Pete's sake, schedule pleasurable things. If awful stuff like dental appointments get a spot on your calendar, so should awesome things. (I enjoy seeing my friends. So I don't "see'em when I see'em" I have lunch with them every Friday at 1 p.m., like clockwork. And "Burger Night" is every Monday at 5 p.m. Dinner with Jason and Lisa is every Sunday night. Nick and I go for a walk and discuss interesting things every Tuesday night. I'm sure you're fascinated by my social schedule, but the point is, with a little planning, you can make fun the default.)
Now as enjoyable as The Pleasant Life sounds, it's the least happy of the four. Why?
If you've ever stared at the ceiling at 2 a.m. and said, "What am I doing with my life?", well, The Pleasant Life can't help you with that. All it can offer you is yet another funny YouTube video of a dog on a skateboard.
(To learn the 4 rituals that neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Alright, so The Pleasant Life is very pleasant… but not much more. Maybe that works for you, maybe not. So what's a happy life that's more engaging — and exciting?
Happy Life No. 2: "The Good Life"
The vast majority of the people you admire did not aspire toward The Pleasant Life. Most athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians, and anyone who's an expert in their field probably sought what Seligman calls "The Good Life."
What's that? Actively doing stuff you're good at and getting lost in it. Trying to improve your skills. Accomplishing goals.
From Authentic Happiness:
The good life: using your signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification in the main realms of your life.
While The Pleasant Life is all about feeling, The Good Life is focused on doing.
This life means figuring out your "signature strengths" — stuff you're uniquely good at — and trying to achieve "flow" as much as possible. Flow is when you're working at something and you're in the zone, not noticing the passage of time because you're caught up in the activity. Don't underestimate how happy doing stuff you're good at can make you:
The more hours per day adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect.
Seligman says The Good Life tops The Pleasant Life because using your signature strengths is more lasting. Pleasure is fleeting while developing skills and achieving goals creates a more profound sense of enjoyment. Using your strengths daily can make you significantly happier for months.
When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full month later.
So how do you create The Good Life? Again, look to your calendar. Instead of spending more time doing stuff that feels good, spend more time using your signature strengths and being in flow.
Are you a natural people person? Ask your boss if you can handle new clients instead of paperwork. Get a kick out of working with numbers? Ask your partner to clean the house and you'll handle the budget and do the taxes.
Or spend hours upon hours writing research-backed blog posts. (That produces flow for at least one person I can think of.)
Does The Good Life sound like work? It is. It's definitely not passive. If the only thing that brings you flow is watching Seinfeld reruns while eating pizza, then The Pleasant Life might be a better choice for you. And if The Good Life is taken too far it can crowd out pleasure. As easy as it is to denigrate The Pleasant Life, we all need some pleasure.
And much like The Pleasant Life, The Good Life can still be meaningless. Video games are great at creating flow and devoting yourself to becoming the best World of Warcraft player ever would be an example of "The Good Life" — without being something any of us would call "a good life."
(To learn the 6 rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)
So The Good Life beats The Pleasant Life, but it's still far from perfect. Both of them lack real meaning. But The Good Life does hold the secret to an even better life. We just have to add one thing…
Happy Life No. 3: "The Meaningful Life"
The Meaningful Life is The Good Life — but you're using your signature strengths in a way that benefits others as well as yourself.
From Authentic Happiness:
The meaningful life: using your signature strengths and virtues in service of something larger than you are.
So not only do you get the benefits of The Good Life but you also become very satisfied with your work.
A major study of ethical work by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon showed that those doing what they call 'good work' – defined as 'work of expert quality that benefits the broader society' – consistently exhibit high levels of job satisfaction.
There's this other nice benefit to The Meaningful Life and it's called not dying. The Japanese call meaning in life "ikigai" (pronounced "icky guy".) And people that have it live longer.
Even when likely confounds were taken into account, ikigai predicted who was still alive after 7 years. Said another way, 95% of respondents who reported a sense of meaning in their lives were alive 7 years after the initial survey versus about 83% of those who reported no sense of meaning in their lives.
Okay, the other lives all had weaknesses so you're probably wondering what the catch is with this one… It's not as immediately pleasurable as The Pleasant Life. And it requires all the effort of The Good Life. And it can — every now and then — hurt.
You have to care to have meaning in your life. And that's going to mean occasional un-pleasant feelings:
Meaningful involvements increase one's stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness.
(To learn how to unlock meaning in your life, click here.)
So all of these lives have their superpowers and their kryptonites. So what's the best of the bunch? How do the happiest people in the world live their lives?
Happy Life No. 4: "The Full Life"
Take all of the previous three in moderation and you have The Full Life.
From Authentic Happiness:
A full life consists in experiencing positive emotions about the past and future, savoring positive feelings from the pleasures, deriving abundant gratification from your signature strengths, and using these strengths in the service of something larger to obtain meaning.
Researchers have studied what the happiest people on the planet all have in common. Those folks do not ignore the benefits of The Pleasant Life:
"They savor life's pleasures and try to live in the present moment."
And they put in the effort that The Good Life requires:
"They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching their children their deeply held values)."
And they are devoted to helping others. They have some of that "icky guy" from The Meaningful Life:
"They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships… They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers and passersby."
Any downsides to The Full Life? Yeah — it can be a lot to juggle. It's tricky to stay consistent. You have to find a balance that works for you. You will have to make sacrifices.
But as the happiest people in the world know: It's worth it.
(To learn more about what the happiest people all have in common, click here).
Alright, we've learned a lot. Let's round it all up — and learn the easy way to start living The Full Life…
Here are the different happy lives:
- The Pleasant Life: PLEASURE GOOD. PAIN BAD. Schedule more fun.
- The Good Life: Do what you're good at and go as far down that rabbit hole of "flow" as you can, Alice.
- The Meaningful Life: The Good Life + helps others.
- The Full Life: Enjoy the pleasures of life, leverage your skills, seek flow, and use it to help people.
The Full Life might sound like a lot. It might sound hard because of formal terms like "signature strengths" and intimidating concepts like "meaning." Don't let any of that stuff scare you off. Just try this:
- Every single day, do something that makes you smile.
- Every single day, do something you're good at.
- Every single day, make sure your efforts help someone else smile.
That's all it takes to start living the happiest life there is.
And if you're not careful, it might turn you into a good human being at the same time.
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