Happiness Isn’t Everything
Some are calling the 21st century the “age of addiction,” and by now, with the help of the media and any number of addiction memoirs and tell-all books, you probably feel like an expert on the subject. Alcoholism is old hat; now everyone is addicted to the Internet and your neighbor is in a 12-step group for sex addicts. Adult celebrities are going into rehab for problems with disordered eating or abuse of inhalants. (Remember those? They’re back. … Well, they never left.) And seemingly, every family struggles silently, if not openly, with a member’s mental illness.
Our culture has devised a vocabulary for bipolar disorder, major depression and other deep and painful challenges of the psyche. We’ve become masters at determining what ails us; we can label every pathology and imagine plenty more. But what is it that supports our stability—that keeps us sane—when we’re lucky enough to claim sanity? What are the innate ingredients of human resilience? And if we study them, will we be able to amplify or reproduce them in order to make us hardier or—hear me out—happier?
Researchers in the field of positive psychology say yes. Positive psychology is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” These researchers believe that studying only addiction and mental disorders, while necessary, doesn’t provide a full understanding of mental health. Their hope is that by studying human strengths, they can glean insight into how we can prevent or heal these challenges and even how we can become happier.
What Is Happiness?
According to researchers, happiness can be measured. Like optometry, it is a science that relies fully on the subject’s ability to self-report his/her subjective experience. After all, what is happiness but a person’s individual experience? Scientists then analyze these self-reports, formulating an understanding of what ingredients constitute happiness, and they come to see, perhaps not unexpectedly, that happiness is contingent upon getting what we want and need, as well as a global sense of well-being—that all is mostly right in our world. For us to feel happy, positive emotions must outweigh the negative ones.
Seeking a Meaningful Life
We all have psychological as well as physical needs. In the breakdown of the upper reaches of famed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, perhaps speaker and author Anthony Robbins clarifies it best. When we look at self-actualization needs, it’s important to understand that we all have needs for significance, needs for certainty, needs for variety and needs for fulfillment. Creating a life of meaning can help to meet each of these needs, and once met, may help to divert someone from self-sabotaging habits, i.e., addictions.
Meaning, as defined by researchers, is different from happiness. Meaningfulness “is linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and, in particular, includes doing positive things for others.” When we have begun to do positive things for others, we have entered what psychologists call prosocial behavior—behavior that benefits other people or society as a whole. Yet those who focus solely on a search for meaning tend to think hard about their past and futures rather than enjoying the moment.
The experience of seeking happiness may be more self-involved or more carefree than the search for meaning, and the search for meaning may be seen as more selfless and more prosocial, though it may come with more personal stress. If individuals can find a balance between happiness and meaning, they’ve hit a golden place, where psychological needs of all types get met and where they may find they have more emotional stamina and greater joy. Finding a balance between acting on behalf of the self and acting on behalf of others appears to be a wise—and happy, and meaningful—way to live.