What makes us happy?
We generally think of happiness as the peak moments of hedonic well-being, which comes from pleasure and enjoyment and is experienced as a range of positive emotions (the clue is in the name!). This was the subject of February’s Happiness Habits session at The Joy Club and you can read about it in my previous article here. However, hedonic well-being is a short-lived experience – a fleeting moment of bliss, delight, calm or serenity. Good news then that there is a form of happiness that can be sustained, you just may not be familiar with it. Eudaimonic well-being refers to a deeper kind of happiness that comes from living a life of meaning, using your strengths for the greater good and realising your potential in the world. It’s experienced as a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction gained through achievement.
‘Eudaimonia’ is a concept that comes from Aristotle and broadly means ‘living well and doing well.’ The modern equivalent is to be flourishing. There are many different routes to eudaimonic well-being, but the formula can be summed up as:
Effort + Meaning = Fulfilment
In this article, I share two happiness habits that can open the door to eudaimonic well being. (You can find habits 1-3 in my previous article here.)
Happiness Habit 4: Harness your Strengths
Try this experiment. Write two lists – one of your strengths and the other of your weaknesses. When you’ve done it, notice which list is longer. No surprise if it’s the weaknesses, as people generally find it much harder to name their strengths. It’s not considered very British to talk about what you’re good at, yet your strengths are your assets. They are you at your best, the positive self. Your greatest potential for growth comes from applying your strengths, yet often they go unrecognised. There are two main types of strengths:
- Personal strengths (aka character strengths). These are positive qualities like kindness or courage.
- Performance strengths are your abilities, whether you have a talent for number-crunching or a gift for making people laugh.
Strengths are the toolkit we use in positive psychology to help people grow their resilience and well-being. Flexing your strengths builds confidence, gives you insight and perspective, and they’re also a source of energy and motivation. One of the early studies in positive psychology showed that finding new ways of using your strengths can lead to higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression symptoms six months down the line. If only we found it easy to identify our strengths.
So how do you know when you have a strength in play? The clues are that you perform at your best, you feel energised and naturally gravitate towards opportunities to use that particular strength. These questions drawn from Average to A+ by Alex Linley can help you spot strengths.
- What are you doing when you are at your best?
- What do you find easy and are naturally good at?
- When do you feel at your most alive? What energises you?
- What sort of skill do you pick up rapidly and effortlessly?
- What do you do just for the love of it?
- What are you passionate about? What do you get animated talking about?
- What makes you say ‘this is the real me’?
- What were you good at as a child? How does it show up in your life now?
- What are you doing when you’re ‘in flow’?
Another way of identifying your strengths is to take a test. The VIA Survey is the result of a mammoth research project to document all of humanity’s positive qualities. 24 strengths of character were identified, that are universally valued around the globe.
We all have these strengths in one order or another. They are grouped together in six categories known as ‘virtues’. The idea is that if you invest in developing a particular strength, then you gain one of the virtues of: Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence.
You can take the VIA strengths test for free at www.viacharacter.org. If you do so, please come along to my next live talk for members where we will share our results and discuss how to apply them in our lives.
Strengths can be very helpful if you’re at a crossroads in life (like retirement) and are unsure about what to do next. Your strengths will give you a clue as to which areas you’ll succeed in because you would be drawing on what you are naturally good at. Apply your strengths to something that’s meaningful to you and you have a pathway for both eudaimonic well-being and our next happiness habit.
Happiness Habit 5: Live with Meaning
What is your ‘ikigai’? Your reason for getting up in the morning? Having a sense of meaning and purpose are essential ingredients for well-being. There is a strong link between the two. A study by psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener found that it wasn’t low levels of life satisfaction that predicted suicide rates so much as low levels of meaning. As we get older the need for meaning grows stronger and we don’t want to waste our precious time on mere fripperies. Some of the top sources of meaning are:
- Relationships with family and friends
- Contributing to society
- Personal development such as learning new skills
- Justice such as standing up for a cause
- Achievement from working towards goals
- Creativity such as expressing yourself as an artist or musician
- Spirituality/Philosophy. Exploring the deeper questions of life
- Health, whether that is improving or recovering your health
- Pleasure such as planning big trips
- Leaving a legacy to the world such as passing on knowledge.
Having a sense of meaning performs two major functions. It gives us an understanding of the ‘why’ in life – why we do the things we do. Our ikigai. Having this mental framework gives us a solid foundation for our lives that can help us be resilient in times of stress. Meaning then leads us to a purpose, something to aim for. This is the corresponding ‘how’ – how we direct our efforts to live our sense of meaning.
We’re more likely to live longer and be healthier if we have a sense of purpose. It’s crucial for well-being and even more so in retirement, when our thinking might move on from having a vocation as a daily source of meaning to thinking about the legacy we want to leave to the world.
Discovering a sense of purpose
A meaningful life – according to Prof Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness – is about engaging your strengths in the service of something larger, contributing to the greater good in some way. We see this with people who volunteer and play an active role in their community.
We tend to find purpose in positive events such as landing the job of our dreams or becoming a grandparent, linking the event to a set of pre-existing beliefs so there is a feeling of things turning out exactly the way they were meant to. On the other hand, we construct meaning out of life’s negative events as part of the process of making sense of adversity. People who go through trauma sometimes go on to found charities to make a meaningful difference to others as a way of trying to make something positive come out of the negative experience they’ve been through.
Has this topic piqued your interest? Discover more about yourself and how to live life with more happiness at our next Positive Psychology talk led by Miriam. You can find out more about the upcoming session and book your place here.