Pursuing happiness: You’re doing it wrong

Martin Seligman - FlourishIn Flourish, Martin Seligman announced the big goal of positive psychology, the science of happiness: to have 51% of people “flourishing” by 2051.

But what does it mean to flourish?

In the book, Seligman explains just that – and debunks the be-all-end-all concept of happiness that he and so many of us have been subscribing to. Happiness is not the goal we’re all seeking.

How come people have children, even though studies show that having children doesn’t bring more happiness? How come we love the feeling of flow, even though we lose track of time and don’t feel much of anything? Are all introverts less happy because our moods are generally lower? Why do so many people achieve great success and find they aren’t happy?

Seligman’s framework explains these and many other questions. Instead of pursuing the single goal of happiness, he says, we pursue these five things:

  • Positive emotion: Momentary feelings of pleasure, glee, satisfaction, etc.
  • Engagement: Flow, or being fully immersed in what we’re doing.
  • Accomplishment: Mastery and success.
  • Relationships
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.

He selected these five criteria because we choose them for their own sake, and they all contribute to well-being. In this new framework, our 24 character strengths can play a role in all these areas.

Seligman explains that this list isn’t meant to be a guide for achieving happiness; it’s simply an observation of the goals people do pursue. But I can’t help but see it that way.

If you had to rank these five areas of your life in order of satisfaction, what order would you put them in? Mine would be achievement, relationships, engagement, positive emotion, and meaning. What areas are you neglecting or putting off?

Some people say that trying to be happy is making us miserable. If that’s true, maybe it’s because “happy” is too generic. It’s hard to wake up and say, “I’m going to be happier today,” but it’s easier to wake up and say, “I’m going to have more positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, or accomplishment today.” As Yogi Berra said, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

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