The history of mankind was influenced by many factors. But perhaps the greatest one of them is every man’s quest for happiness. Everything that men and women have done, said, fought for was their happiness.
Times may have changed, but men have not. What we experience now is the same struggle, the same search for anything and anyone that can make our lives less miserable and more pleasant. And since we are now at the highest level of individual freedom in humankind, that desire manifests ever more freely.
Look around you! What do people seem to do? They work a lot, move into big, beautiful houses, dress up, go out with friends, travel the world, fall in love, get married, create, express themselves, read, set goals, take risks, eat delicious desserts and everything else. Why do people do all this? I believe that people do all these things and many more for one reason: to feel happier.
But I have to tell you this: all those things will not provide the same “amount” of happiness. I know that we are all unique and our paths to happiness start in different places and lead us in different directions. But it seems that there are only a few paths we can actually take. According to Martin Seligman, there are 3 paths to happiness. Depending on the one you take, you will experience a different type of happiness and life. Here they are, as he presented them in his book Learned Optimism. 1
If you seek pleasure, you will live a pleasant life. You want to have positive experiences and feel positive emotions. You try to create these experiences as often as possible. 1
This is the reason why people buy expensive jewelry, fashionable clothes, eat gourmet food and travel to exotic countries. All these experiences make us feel good and we try to recreate them in order to feel happy again.
But here’s the problem with the happiness pleasure brings: 2
- The amount of pleasure we normally feel depends on our genetic makeup. About 50% of the happiness you feel depends on your genes. 2 In other words, if you have the “right” genes, you will normally feel happier than other people. And if you do not, you will have to work harder to be happy. As you can see, this is not something you can influence.
- You get used to it and in time the same experience will generate less and less happiness. 2 For example, think about your favorite food. It may be pizza, foie gras or chocolate cake. When you start eating that, it feels delicious. You savour it and wish you could eat that every day. But each new bite provides less and less satisfaction. 2 If you eat too much of it or eat it too often, that favourite food will no longer generate any positive emotion. Or worse, it might make you feel sick to your stomach.
In my opinion, this is the type of happiness that most people imagine, pursue and experience. It is also the easiest to create. But, as you saw, it also has its drawbacks. So what other options do we have?
Another way to pursue happiness is by using your skills. You live a life of engagement when you identify your abilities and talents and use them very often. 1 You can apply them to your work, to your love life or to your hobbies. 1,2 When you do something that you are skilled at and that you enjoy, you experience a state of flow. 2 You immerse yourself in that activity and forget about everything else. 2
If you want to experience this in your life you can identify your strengths and organize your life in a way that allows you to apply them in areas such as: work, love, play (hobbies) or relationships. 2
I would say that while everyone experiences pleasure in their lives sometimes, only some people get to experience flow and be truly engaged in something. In order to experience this, you first need to get to know yourself enough to become aware of your strengths. And then you need to create a life that allows you to use those strengths often – daily, if possible. It takes more effort than buying a chocolate cake, but it is also more rewarding. And if this is not enough for you, there is one more option…
The third path is the meaningful life. You experience meaning when you use your best abilities and talents to work on a mission. You give your best to a cause that you truly believe in and that is bigger than yourself. 2 You do not simply want to do what you are good at and what makes you happy and provides you benefits. You go the extra mile and work on goals that benefit you, the people around you and society.
If you want to know what this life is like, think about the English teacher that works in school because she wants to inspire children to speak well, be well-read and be presentable. And she does her job passionately and creatively, even though there are several jobs that are much better paid.
Think about the pediatrician doctor that works long hours because he wants to help take care of children when they are sick. He might be overworked and underpaid, but he knows how important a child is to a parent and he does his best to keep them alive and healthy.
Also think about the classic examples, the activists and martyrs that stand up for what they believe in – even if it means that they would later be threatened, beaten, sent to prison or even killed like Martin Luther King Jr. Or think about the people that devote their lives to helping people or serving God – with as much or as little as they have such as Mother Theresa.
These are the people that deeply believe in their values, their ideals and their goals. They often believe that they were sent here on Earth to carry out their mission or they have chosen to do it because this is what makes sense to them. This is the only way they see themselves living their lives.
However, you do not have to sell everything you have and move to Africa to help poor people build their houses to achieve this. You can choose your own way of providing value and creating or giving something that will greatly contribute to the lives of other people.
If you want a more modern example, look at people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates. Elon Musk set out to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy and create great electric cars. He did that by investing his own money and time and by working hard (even 80 hours/week). Or think about Bill and Melinda Gates who created their own foundation and work on eradicating polio in the world. To this end, they use their foundation to raise money and invest it in routine immunization and vaccine research (among others). 3
But you do not have to set out to save the world in order to experience a meaningful life. You can set your own goal, use your own skills and make your own contribution – however small or big it may be. Although it seems that finding meaning and dedicating your life to it is more challenging than the other two options, it is also the most rewarding one.
Martin Seligman wanted to know how much these 3 types of happiness contribute to life satisfaction. And his research led him to draw the following conclusions: 2
- Pleasure makes almost no difference in terms of life satisfaction
- Engagement can significantly increase people’s level of life satisfaction
- Meaning contributes to life satisfaction the most
Although meaning matters the most, we may experience different types of happiness at different stages in our lives. We may decide to take just one path or build a life that includes all three. All knowledge can do is helps us become more aware, more wise and encourage us to choose what is best for us.
But in the end, only you can decide where you want to go and how you want to live. And now that you’ve been given a map showing you the trail that leads to happiness, what will you do? Which path will you take?
This article was originally posted as a lesson in "The Happiness School". It is an ongoing course that will help you learn more about happiness, the factors that contribute to or limit it and life advice.