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By Martin E. P. Seligman

The American public and most of the rest of the world believes that happiness equals pleasure. A life that maximizes the amount of positive feelings and minimizes the amount of negative ones is a happy life.

Happiness equals pleasure?

So pervasive is this "hedonic" view of happiness that when I tell audiences that there are two other paths to happy lives - the Good Life and the Meaningful Life - that need not have any positive emotion at all, they are incredulous. "You are redefining happiness arbitrarily," they say.

The hedonic view of happiness convinces us that Goldie Hawn and Debbie Reynolds are the paradigmatic examples of being happy: smiley, ebullient, cheerful, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Two things wrong with this idea

But there are two things radically wrong with this hedonic view. The first is that smiley ebullience is highly heritable and very hard to get more of. This trait is called "positive affectivity" and identical twins are much more likely to share it than are fraternal twins. It is not very changeable, and the best that learning skills such as "savoring" and "mindfulness" can do is to help you to live in the upper part of your set range of positive affectivity. The fact that it is normally distributed means that half the population is not very smiley, cheerful, and ebullient, and not likely to become so--even with carefully reading and diligently doing the exercises in Authentic Happiness.

The second problem with the Hollywood view of happiness, as pervasive as it is, is a very poor intellectual provenance. When Aristotle spoke of the "Eudaimonia," the Good Life, he was not focused on the positive feelings of pleasure--orgasm, a backrub, and a full stomach. Rather he was concerned with the "pleasures" of contemplation--which do not reside in orgasmic thrills or sensations of warmth, but in deep absorption and immersion, a state we now call "flow." And during this state there is neither thought nor feeling. You are simply "one with the music."

Three paths to happy lives

So the core thesis in Authentic Happiness is that there are three very different routes to happiness. First the Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible and having the skills to amplify the pleasures. This is, of course, the only true kind of happiness on the Hollywood view. Second, the Good Life, which consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life. Third, the Meaningful Life, which consists of using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.

Important new evidence

Until this month, the idea that there are three routes to happiness, two of which do not involve any felt positive emotion at all, was merely an untested theory. Both Chris Peterson at the University of Michigan and Veronika Huta at McGill University have just tested it with converging results that are startling.

Dr. Peterson devised three sets of questions, one about pursuing and having the Pleasant Life, the other two about pursuing and having the Good Life or the Meaningful Life, and gave them to 150 adult volunteers. You can complete a questionnaire with all of these questions on this website. His target was life satisfaction. He found that both the Good Life and the Meaningful Life were related to life satisfaction: the more Eudaimonia or the more Meaning, the more life satisfaction. Astonishingly, however, the amount of pleasure in life did not add to life satisfaction.

Eudaimonia predicts satisfaction

Ms. Huta followed people in their daily lives and beeped them at random (using Csikszentmihalyi's ESM method), asking them what they were doing and what their emotional state was. She devised a scale reflecting hedonic motives (i.e., pursuing pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort) and a scale reflecting eudaimonic motives (i.e., pursuing personal growth, development of their potential, achieving personal excellence, and contributing to the lives of others). Eudaimonic pursuits were significantly correlated with life satisfaction whereas hedonic pursuits were not.

She also measured degree of eudaimonic activity and degree of hedonic activity at each of seven time points on each of the seven days of the study. She measured activity in two ways: (1) using self-report measures (asking how much the person was growing and developing their potential from their current activity or how much the person was enjoying themselves or experiencing pleasure), and (2) using ratings made by independent raters who read subjects' written descriptions of their activities (an activity received a high rating on eudaimonia if it was something typically pursued for personal growth; an activity received a high rating on hedonia if it was something typically pursued for pleasure or enjoyment or relaxation). She computed mean scores across all time points on these four variables for each subject. Whether she used the self-report data or the independent rater data, mean eudaimonic activity was significantly predictive of life satisfaction whereas mean hedonic activity was not.

Cheerfulness not needed to be happy

The upshot of these two studies, done independently, is that successfully pursuing pleasure does not necessarily lead to life satisfaction, but successfully pursuing the Good Life and the Meaningful Life does lead to higher life satisfaction.

Take that, Goldie.

© Copyright 2002 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.