As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, January 10, 2008. Published as: Which positive pathway will you follow? New psychological theories examine points of pleasurable, engaged and meaningful lifestyles
Imagine a genie stands before you and states that you can be a real, live superhero. All you have to do is decide: wear a red cape and you can defeat all of the bad things in this world. With a green cape, you can grow all kinds of good things. Which do you choose?
Dr. James Pawelski, director of education from the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, recently posed this question to a room full of psychologists. He led us in a discussion about the benefits of each special power. Historically, psychology has donned the red cape, aiming to thwart problems that make us unhappy. The relatively new field of positive psychology has been researching and espousing the green cape. The ultimate goal? Teach us how to be happier.
Positive psychology defines 3 hierarchical pathways to happiness: the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life—all of which I have personally seen in action. Under the stewardship of Dr. Martin Seligman (past president of the American Psychological Association), this burgeoning field has conducted empirical research over the past decade to examine these areas more closely.
The pleasant life, as the name suggests, is a life filled with pleasures. To achieve this, we often search out and accumulate enjoyable experiences—much like Bert collects bottle caps (my nephew is into Sesame Street). What could possibly be wrong with awesome vacations, a beautiful house, and the latest iPhone? Nothing. It’s eminently reasonable, even admirable, to actively look for what makes you happy (short of things like abusing drugs, of course).
However, this kind of happiness fades quickly. A life focused on it can leave you forever running to find the next new pleasure. Positive psychology suggests that rather than set ourselves up for this endless marathon, we should savor the good stuff that’s already in our lives. For more insight on the pleasant life, you can find my previous column about it at www.drbecker-phelps.com.
Sadly, even when we fully enjoy life’s pleasures, it is often not enough to make us happy. I know this because I have heard countless confused people essentially say, “I have everything I could want—financial security, a healthy and loving family, and good friends—and, yet, I am still unhappy.” Their lives were clearly lacking something to balance the fleeting pleasures. And positive psychology identifies that something: engagement.
The engaged life occurs when you experience happiness by using your signature strengths every day. Signature strengths are positive traits (i.e. kindness, curiosity, perseverance) that are particularly characteristic of you. When we use our signature strengths to accomplish something or meet a challenge, we feel “authentically happy” and gratified. We get lost in the experience and lose a sense of time—the technical word for this is “flow.”
When I counsel people overwhelmed by some circumstance, I often encourage them to find an activity that can completely capture their attention. Brenda, whose life was ruled by her cancer treatment, found solace in gardening. Aside from liking to dig her fingers into the earth, she had a deep sense of being in tune with herself in a positive way; that is what the engaged life is all about.
Contradictory as it sounds, we have no feelings when we are happy in this way. It is when we look back that we realize we enjoyed the experience. So, only some time after helping a friend hone her presentation for work, you might feel gratified as you realize, “I really liked doing that.”
To increase your engagement in life, you first need to identify your signature strengths. List all the situations that have fully engrossed you. For instance, Mike loves reading nonfiction, watching Jeopardy, and going to workshops on different topics such as travel and world economics. Next, determine what traits you are showing in the situations on your list. Mike realized he is curious and loves learning new things. He sees those traits as expressions of “the real me,” which make them his signature strengths.
For more guidance in identifying your strengths, take the VIA (Values-in-Action) Strengths Survey on the website www.authentichappiness.org. This survey takes about twenty-five minutes to complete and will provide you with a useful list of your strengths.
I advise people to use their top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week. By purposely doing things that engage you, you will, of course, experience more engagement. Hopefully, that experience will be positive enough to make you want to continue it. One study found that people who were instructed to do this exercise for a week, and who spontaneously continued to do it, were happier for up to six months.
Another wonderful exercise begins with identifying the strengths of a friend or partner as well as your own. The next step is to make plans to do something that uses both of your strengths. So, if your strength is perseverance and your friend’s strength is kindness, together you could join, say, the American Stroke Association’s Train To End Stroke program. This exercise is particularly good to do when the bonds of a marriage are weakening (as happens in all marriages from time to time).
When you incorporate using your strengths into daily life, you cannot help but feel an authentic happiness; a happiness that is anchored in who you are and what you have to offer. This is what Seligman calls “the good life.” And, although this is certainly something worth achieving in itself, he explains that you can also use your strengths in the service of achieving something beyond the good life; meaning.
The meaningful life occurs when we feel connected with something bigger than ourselves, such as our community or our religion. By applying our signature strengths to this effort, we feel engaged and find happiness that transcends our individual selves.
There are innumerable ways to do this. Join a committee in your community. Become active in your church or temple. Offer to tutor someone with Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey. Simply take the time to identify your core strengths and the greater good that you would like to serve. From there, you should have no problem finding ways to engage in a meaningful life.
Happiness can feel perpetually elusive. However, by pursuing a balance of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, you can create a full, happy life. And, you can achieve it while bringing goodness to the world around you. By doing this, you become a super hero in your own life—with or without the cape.
The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ