A happy life is made up of three different kinds of lives: the first is the pleasant life, which consists of having as many of the positive emotions as you can, and learning the skills that amplify them. Fortunately positive emotion (hedonics) as we often see it portrayed in the Hollywood context is not where it ends. Pleasure in itself seems empty and philosophers from Aristotle through Seneca through Wittgenstein considered the notion of pleasure as vulgar.
The good life is the second kind of life, and at it's root is knowing what you are good at – your signature strengths – and then re-crafting your life to use more of these strengths in all aspects of your life, which leads to Flow. When you deploy your strengths in various parts of your life, such as work, home, romance, you end up spending a lot of time in Flow. Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle talked about "eudaemonia", the good life, as the pursuit of happiness2). They didn’t mean smiling and giggling, they were talking about about the pleasures of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation. It is the place where time stops, where you feel completely at home, where negative emotions like self-consciousness is blocked and where you're one with what you are doing.
To review so far, there is the pleasant or life — having as many of the pleasures as you can and the learning the skills to expand them — and the good life — knowing what your highest strengths are and re-crafting everything you do to use them as much as possible as often as possible. And then there's a third form of happiness that we humans pursue, the pursuit of meaning. There is one thing we know about meaning: that meaning consists in attachment to something bigger than you are. The self is not a very good site for attaching meaning, and the larger the thing that you can credibly attach yourself to, the more meaning you find.
Meaning is knowing what your highest strengths are - and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There's no shortcut to that. That's what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it's unlikely there'll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And as Seligman said, it's impossible that there'll be a pharmacology of meaning.
Although people tend to think of meaning as having a singular source, Emmons (1997) states, “Empirically, however, people’s lives usually draw meaning from multiple sources, including family and love, work, religion, and various personal projects.”
Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (2005, p. 610) associate the quest for meaning in life with the following needs: 3)
1. Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes — objective goals and subjective fulfilment.
2. Values, which can justify certain courses of action.
3. Efficacy, the belief that one can make a difference.
4. Self-worth and reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person apparently are what results from emersion in our natural talents or what we excel at.
This type of engagement brings personal joy and imbues meaning to one’s life. It even makes it possible for us to work towards the greater good, to transcend our personal limitations and to get enmeshed in creating resilience for our communities and those close to us. There is a classification of six universal virtues which break down in to 24 strengths: first, a wisdom and knowledge cluster; second, a courage cluster; third, virtues like love and humanity; fourth, a justice cluster; fifth a temperance, moderation cluster; and sixth a spirituality, transcendence cluster. These virtues and their subordinate strengths represent the best in us. We all have different strengths, and if we engage ourselves in our personal areas of strength, we create meaning – both in our own lives and also beyond. It becomes virtually impossible to be engaged in one’s area of personal strengths without creating meaningful output - both for personal and wider consumption. Finding out what we are good at is not only our birthright, but will in most instances result in greater life satisfaction – if we then focus on spending more time on the areas where we are best at, doing what makes us feel good. Knowing what our personal strengths are allows us to find our niche in this world, the place where we can be recognised for our strengths, where we have enough talent not only to use for our own good, but even plenty to spare and to share with others.
People who live a life of paucity or scarcity have most likely not discovered their personal strengths, or know what these are, but choose not to live their lives by practicing them. The following list of strengths is provided to provide in broad strokes a context for these strengths that makes each of us as individuals great at what we do.
Strengths of Wisdom and Knowledge:
· Creativity (originality, Ingenuity)
· Curiosity (interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience)
· Open-Mindedness (judgement, critical thinking)
· Love of learning
· Perspective (wisdom)
Strengths of Courage:
· Persistence (perseverance, industriousness)
· Integrity (authenticity, honesty)
· Vitality (zest, enthusiasm, vigour, energy)
Strengths of Humanity
· Kindness (generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, ‘niceness’)
· Social intelligence (emotional intelligence, personal intelligence)
Strengths of Justice
· Citizenship (social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork)
Strengths of Temperance
· Forgiveness and mercy
· Humility and modesty
· Self-regulation (self-control)
Strengths of Transcendence
· Appreciation of beauty and excellence (awe, wonder, elevation)
· Hope (optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation)
· Humour (playfulness)
· Spirituality (religiousness, faith, purpose) 4)
Also see http://uat.viacharacter.org/VIACHARACTERPROFILE/GetYourProfile/tabid/62/language/en-US/Default.aspx. Note: readers are urged to take the free test at the above site to identify their personal strengths. Please contact us if you want to find out more about how to use your strengths to your best advantage in work, relationships and day to day living.
The emphasis in the VIA Character Strengths and Virtues above is on the strengths of individuals. There is not the traditional ‘weaknesses’ which have to be ‘improved’ on or the euphemistic ’areas of development’ we have had to listen to through gritted teeth in our performance reviews. The logic is simply that if you spend most of your time doing what you are good at then you will probably be more successful than if you spent most of your time trying to get better at things for which you clearly have little natural ability or talent. And no more need to feel bad about what you are not good at, or to feel compelled to improve in an area that would take you years to barely equal average. And if you are doing what you are good at, you will be happy at what you are doing, you can expectto receive a good wage for doing it and you may well find that it feels less like work and more like play. You will be fast at what you do because it comes naturally – so you will be able to finish tasks on or ahead of schedule, thus giving you a little extra margin of free time if you want to get away from work to have more quality time with your family, or if you want to give some of your time and talent to a charity or some other form of the greater good.
And there are other bonuses to being involved or ‘in Flow’ – that place where you are so immersed in what you are doing that you hardly hear the radio, or the telephone ringing, where you are creative, focussed on the task, living in the moment, experiencing no negativity and being extremely productive: You do not have to combat some of the most serious ills of our time – the ruminations or negative self talk that we can so easily fall victim to when living a life without purpose or meaning: boredom, restlessness, feelings of inadequacy. Swaby remarks that we are all addicts: watching TV, the computer, technology, the internet, food, coffee and even chocolate have become objects of our addiction.
“It is hard to find something that we can enjoy without the risk of becoming addicted. One might even wonder if we are all destined to become addicts? The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University polled 1,987 teenagers and 504 parents. It found that teen substance abuse has three predictors: high stress, too much spending money, and frequent boredom. Bored teenagers, it found, are 50% more likely to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs. The studies highlight that at the core of addiction is a search for significant experiences, an escape from boredom and a longing for the rush that comes from consuming the substance of choice. Addiction, it seems, is a pseudo-search for meaning. It is a replacement for having little or no compelling purpose for your life. One either finds personal meaning, or they will find themselves swept into a compulsive search for meaning-in-a-bottle. Indeed, are we all not addicted to meaning?”
Swaby argues that when we have a compelling purpose we become filled with meaning, energy, persistence and zeal for life. And when we lack this type of purpose, we feel empty, we suffer from depression, anxiety, lack of focus and distractibility. Addicts describe feeling drawn to the excitement of the high. We are all drawn to the 'high' that we receive from a fulfilling life purpose. Boredom, restlessness and anxious feelings can drive any of us to an addiction of busy-ness. 5)
Steven Winn, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle says, "We are all terrified of boredom." "Boredom," he writes, "arrives with a spectrum of feelings shading from guilt and distress to bafflement and pleasure. It poses fundamental questions about our own identities and the connections we make, or don't, with the world around us." Each of us must choose: a compelling purpose, or a compulsive practice.
Tara Miller says that if life is a question of contentment, then the answer will be defined by what we do - our life's meaning. Our contentment to find passion in our work, our family, our love, can falter if we are constantly engaged in tasks that don’t bring out the best in us.
Being content with life is difficult, especially when you feel that life, love, work, and relationships are treating you unfairly. Having personal meaning, and finding worth in one's life and activities will lead to contentment. Personal meaning brings the individual from responding with greed, anger, or resentment, and allows for contentment and joy in the task at hand. Contentment is not hard to attain, yet if one's own personal meaning does not drive one's life, one is robbed of true contentment.
If one can find joy in the task for the tasks’ sake, if it is possible to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, then meaning and purpose cannot be far way. When one can transcend the execution of the task and enjoy it for it’s own sake, or deliver one’s own talents and gifts in the service of something greater, then we approach serving in a vocation – a calling. This elevated state of living one’s highest worth is possible and potentially in the grasp of everyone who reads this blog entry. It starts with finding your strengths and claiming your purpose.
1. Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free PressSeligman, M. (2004).
2. Eudaomonia, The good life. Edge conversation with Martin Seligman about meaning in life.
3. Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
4. Christopher Petersen and Martin E.P. Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues – A handbook and Classification. New York. Oxford University Press. (2004)
5. Addicted to Meaning Sean M. Swaby Edmonton, Alberta, Canada http://www.ibolt.com
6. Where has my Contentment Gone?Tara D. Miller Edmonton, Alberta, Canada http://www.meaning.ca/living/MOL_articles.htm