I’m not an expert on happiness. If anything I’m an expert on being miserable. If I look back on my adult life, the amount of time I’ve spent miserable has been magnitudes greater than the amount of time I’ve spent happy.
And yet here I am, happy.
So I’ll give credit where credit’s due: Prof. Martin Seligman, the inventor of positive psychology, on whose ideas I’m shamelessly piggybacking. According to Seligman there are only three ways to become happy:
- Living the pleasant life.
- Living the good life.
- Living the meaningful life.
Here’s his short (23 minute) TED presentation on the subject (there’s quite a lot more to his research but this is a good starting point).
The pleasant life is a life of pleasure. Leaning back and eating the grapes, hedonistic like. You try to get as many pleasant experiences as possible, be it taste, sex, money, what have you. The problem is that the human brain is incredibly good at habituating to positive experiences. Once we try something great we start to expect it and the feeling of pleasure falls off rapidly. It’s a bit like drugs, or ice cream: the first part creates a very strong experience, but every try after that becomes more and more “common” until you need to stuff your face full of white stuff (ice-cream or not) in order to just reach “not-terrible”.
So the pleasant life is a quick fix. It’s easy to get but hard to maintain. What about the good life?
The good life is a life of Flow (check out Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly if you don’t know what that is). Here you’re balancing the three main areas of life (work, play and love) to reach an optimal experience.
The good life is all about becoming engaged in what you do. It’s about forgetting time, just doing the thing you love, the thing that moves you the most. You could be spending time playing with your kids, if that’s what engrosses you, or designing weather vanes. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as it’s something that engages your brain fully.
Reaching that engagement is hard.
You need a certain interest in a task. You need the time available to perform it, and the task needs to be just hard enough, or you should be able to scale it, so that it doesn’t become trivial or too hard.
For a lot of artists or coders, this is the life they’re living when they work. They get engrossed in their work, in the words or statements that flow from their fingers. They keep entire worlds, programs, paintings, symphonies in their heads and they flow effortlessly out of them. Or at least it feels like it’s effortless, in reality they’re engaging with their art on a very high and challenging level. But to them, in that moment, i feels like time’s stopped.
That’s a great feeling. And while you do habituate to a certain level of skill you can always push your envelope and start to add stuff in such a way that you will constantly be in flow. I, for one, love it when I hit flow. And sometimes I find strange stuff happening, like becoming hyper-aware of my fingers hitting the keyboard (or of the need to learn Dvorak typing – my fingers are moving way too far, and are way too slow in transforming my thoughts to dots on the screen).
So that’s the good life. But there’s one left: the Meaningful life.
I’m writing it with a capital M because it isn’t any kind of meaning, it’s Meaning. The Meaningful life is about becoming part of something greater than oneself. Right now, as I’m typing this, I’m part of a greater community – I’m talking to you, dear unknown reader (do let me know who you are in the comments ;)). I’m transferring my thoughts, my knowledge into something that will hopefully help or enlighten you. I’m doing something not for my own gain (although there is gain in the pleasure I get from writing this in the flow I experience) but for the gain of others.
Taken to extremes the meaningful life is a life of Mother Theresa or Warren Buffet. Both of them built something, created meaning through something other than themselves. Of course, they built widely different things; you’d be hard pressed to compare Mother Theresa’s mission to Warren Buffet’s financial empire. But both of them live(d) for that creation, to be part of something greater than themselves.
Seligman argues that this is the ultimate goal, to transcend through the stages from pleasure, through flow to meaning. All three stages exist in parallell – just because you live for coding games doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a good chicken chow mein. But there’s more happiness to be gained from advancing along the scale as pleasure habituates and flow easily becomes very solitary.
Of course, you could combine all three: for example a world class chef who becomes completely engrossed in creating amazing meals to share with others.
As for me, I’m happy to have found a place where I can write, share and contribute.
How about you?
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