Positive Psychology and Valuing Meaning over Happiness

The birth of Positive Psychology is traced back to Professor Martin Seligman’s Presidential Address in the APA’s 1998 Annual Report in which he wrote: “Positive psychology should not only have as a useful side effect the prevention of serious mental illness, but it also holds the potential to create, as a direct effect, an understanding and a scientifically informed practice of the pursuit of the best things in life and of family and civic virtue.”

BeyondHappinessFifteen years later, Positive Psychology is going strong and much research has gone into understanding how to pursue a more fulfilling life.

Seligman, himself has challenged the previously widely held view that happiness equals pleasure and that only a life that maximizes the amount of positive feelings and minimizes the amount of negative ones is a happy life. He maintains that there are different routes to happiness: the Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible; the Good Life, which consists in knowing what your strengths are, and then re-crafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths; and the Meaningful Life, which consists of using your strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.

Some recent research say that being happy and finding meaning in life overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness and meaningfulness. Here are some of the findings:
– Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.
– Happiness was largely present oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future.
– Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker.
– Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness.
– Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.

The research authors concluded that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided”.

Although Thomas Jefferson, a materialist, penned the phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, its seems that 250 years later we are in the process of transforming self-centered happiness into other-centered meaning. Maybe that’s what Jefferson meant all along.