3 Paths to Happiness

“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” – John Milton

How do we know when we are happy? We spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to surround ourselves with people, material goods, and activities that we believe will make us feel happy. Many people chase after pleasure in their quest for happiness. There is often an image of a “happy person” as someone who is smiling, cheerful, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed. Equating this type of person with what it means to be happy can be dangerous and misleading.

Dr. Martin Seligman, pioneer in the field of positive psychology, explains that there are two important things wrong with this hedonic view of happiness:

  • Positive affectivity” (what makes a person ebullient, bright-eyed, and cheerful) is highly heritable, hard to get more of, resistant to change, and is normally distributed in the population.
  • This cheery view of happiness has very weak intellectual roots. When Aristotle spoke of eudaimonia, he was not concerned with physical pleasures, but rather with the pleasures of contemplation. This state of deep contemplation is now considered to be the deep absorption and immersion that we call “flow.”

Paths to Happiness

In Dr. Seligman’s book, “Authentic Happiness,” he explains that there are three very different routes to happiness:

(1) Pleasant Life

This path to happiness consists of obtaining and experiencing as many pleasures as possible and having the necessary skills to amplify those pleasures. This is the view of happiness that Hollywood sells us as being the primary route to happiness. This type of life involves consistently moving toward pleasure and away from pain. This can be a very dangerous form of experiential avoidance, since the choice to only pay attention to things that are pleasant results in a distorted view of reality.

Imagine someone who attempts to live the pleasant life by eating cookies or sweets whenever they feel like it, going outside to do a playful activity whenever they feel like it, or using drugs or alcohol whenever they feel like it. These types of behaviors can all bring about temporary short-term pleasure. The key words here are “temporary” and “short-term.” Many pleasure-seeking behaviors can be just fine in moderation and with mindful consideration of future consequences, but those same behaviors can become extremely unpleasant and deleterious to your well-being in excess. (Think obesity, not getting your work done, and hangovers/overdose).

(2) Good Life

This second path to happiness involves authentic knowledge of your signature strengths and an accompanying shift in your work, friendship, leisure, parenting, and love to effectively use those strengths and have more experiences of “flow.” When you are mindfully aware of your signature strengths, you can then move towards greater use of those strengths in different areas of your life. The idea is to strengthen those qualities in yourself that are already strong… capitalize on your existing strengths to increase your chances of entering into “flow.”

When you are in a state of “flow,” 100% of your attention is focused on the task at hand – pleasurable or not. Getting into this state of focused, yet somewhat effortless sustained attention, does require a bit of effort on your part. The activity should be challenging enough to hold your relaxed attention. When you actively practice mindfulness, you are more likely to get into a state of “flow,” since this type of focused attention brings your awareness more fully into the present moment with openness and acceptance.

(3) Meaningful Life

The third path to happiness is all about using your signature strengths in the service of a cause that you believe to be greater than yourself. Since our Western society values individualism, freedom, and autonomy to such a great extent, the word “service” often leaves a bad taste in some peoples’ mouths. If you find yourself having this reaction, consider where those ideas come from and in what ways you have been recruited by our society to value the qualities that you do.

Alidina (2011) explains that “helping others is the core ingredient for a happy life.” This doesn’t have to mean quitting your job and donating all of your worldly possessions to charities. What it does mean is to shift your attitude from one that is excessively focused on acquiring wealth, possessions, or status symbols to one that has a very different motivation… living life based on a deep desire to fulfill your true purpose, to make meaningful differences in the lives of others, or to live in accordance with your most deeply cherished values.

When you reflect on these three different paths to happiness, which path appeals to you the most? Consider where you learned what it means to be happy (or not). We often learn what happiness is “supposed” to look like from our parents’/caregivers’ pursuits of happiness. If we witnessed one of these three paths to happiness in our families growing up, it can be difficult to consider that there are other ways to be genuinely happy. Imagine if you witnessed your family members chasing after happiness through material wealth, status, or prestige. You might have an idea in your mind that you can never “really” be happy until you acquire those things, too. There are different paths to happiness, and it is up to you which path to travel.

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If you would like to know what your signature strengths are, you may take this free 24-item Brief Strengths Test at Penn’s Authentic Happiness Testing Center.

Alidina, S. (2011). Mindfulness for dummies. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Featured image: A path forked thrice in the woods by pfly / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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