Happiness applied

There are thousands of manuals towards happiness. Some are horrible, some decent, a few inspiring. Can someone please summarize the various how-tos into an approach that makes sense? Without incense sticks esoteric or an eccentric yes-you-can garble? Yup. You’re welcome.

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Why do manuals for happiness exist?

We should be fine. In fact, we should be really fine. Overall economic prosperity has risen. Vital food is sufficiently available. There have been huge advancements in medical care. Life expectancy is rising. So why do diagnoses for mental diseases increase proportionally to shelf space for self-help books? Although we are better off, why are we getting unhappier?

Well, not only did our expectations increase, but maybe also the fast joy-fix (Amazon, Instagram, Netflix…) has become too easy, has worn off and made us dependent. Somehow, that fix always felt hollow, anyway. Never mind, a quick shopping spree and we’ll immediately feel better 👜 very briefly at least.

We want convenience, and do not want to listen to ancient philosophers telling us that lasting happiness only comes through effort. And why should a feeling of flow only exist in a narrow corridor between fear of overburden and boredom? We seek the shortest way to happiness. And for that we want manuals. Maybe yoga. Maybe meditation. But the fast and easy way.


We’re searching. For happiness, for fulfilment, for purpose. And a shortcut to get there. But which shortcut is best to take? If we focus on approaches that are at least half-way scientifically backed, luckily 🍀 only a few relevant models remain — with an astonishing amount of overlap. Most insight have of course been known for thousands of years through eastern religions, tradition, indigenous people and ancient philosophers. And unfortunately, there are no real shortcuts. But there are several interesting concepts that might facilitate the search for happiness. A bit of effort on our part still is required, though.

A combined approach

You just want the short answer, and not a description of the different approaches? O.k., I’ll give a short overview of the various approaches further down below, here’s just the summary: I’ve been inspired mostly by the popular science 3P approach, Seligman’s PERMA model and ideas from Design Thinking. But I believe that only through a combination of various models one finds scientifically sound insights which can be applied well in practice. How would such a combined model look like? Something like this potentially — and the design obviously still needs some tweaking:

zentor model for a fulfilling life

In my understanding a life is fulfilling, if it is defined by recurring moments of joy and flow. The three main sources for these moments are the 3Ps — Purpose, People & Passion: 
We find purpose in doing things that extend beyond ourselves and which are aligned to our values (rational layer).
Being social animals, we seek appreciation and positive feedback from people that are important to us (social & individual layer).
We feel passion for activities we enjoy and are good at (emotional layer). Passion or engagement respectively also delivers the vital energy for everything we do.
The bases for being able to sustainably use the three sources are good physical health and the integration into a well-functioning society in line with environment and nature — consequently these form the bottom layer in the model.

To sensibly apply the model to practice, three building blocks seem relevant:
- A good understanding of one’s identity and character
- Capabilities to find the path towards a fulfilling life
- Motivation and the appropriate portion of courage for change

Each of these building blocks can be applied alongside the combined model to find sources for joyful moments and flow, and to integrate these into a fulfilling life. And each of these building blocks can be trained and strengthened through various techniques.

Btw: We are using the combined model also at zentor to develop a digital mentor for a fulfilling life. If you’d like to know more about our “purpose platform” or test an initial application of the model we invite you to stop by at www.zentor.me.

And now for all of you who would like to get one level deeper: Here’s a short and very simplified description of the various approaches which I found useful.

Approaches from the domain of psychology

In the dungeons of psychology, it is the branch of positive psychology which has been most associated with happiness research. Martin Seligman, as one of the founders of positive psychology, still does pioneering work to counterbalance the usual overemphasis on researching diseases in psychology with a positive spin 🍭.

Illustration: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn

His PERMA Model towards happiness is one of the scientifically and empirically more sound ones and consists of the following elements (very simplified): 
- Positive Emotions (well-dosed experiences of pleasures & joys)
- Engagement (exercising your strengths to find flow)
- Relationships (appreciation from and for others we care about)
- Meaning (a deeper sense of purpose, transcending beyond us)
- Accomplishment (achieving success through effort)

A simplified illustration for Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow

Almost equally important in the realm of happiness in psychology is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who first researched the concept of flow — describing a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and complete absorption in said activity. Very simplified, flow can be experienced in the space between boredom and anxiety, i.e. when one’s skill level meets the challenge level of an activity. Thus, not only the task itself is relevant for finding a state of flow, but also its difficulty and one’s skills to execute it is involved.

A bit older, but still relevant is Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid of needs, which aims to describe the levels of human growth. In this model, fulfilling basic needs (physiologic & safety needs) is followed by fulfilling psychological needs (social belonging & self-esteem) and lastly by self-actualisation. This last level comes closest to what we would term happiness and describes how to develop one’s full potential, to achieve that which nature has endowed us to be able to achieve. In a later revision of the pyramid, another level was added on top of the model called transcendence, i.e. giving oneself up to a higher outside goal and the search for a god/deity or Universal Good, driven by the desire to reach the infinite.

Philosophical approaches

Many ancient philosophers spent their lifetime thinking about the meaning of life and why & when a life was deemed worth living (i.e. fulfilling). Central to these questions usually was the search to finding universal values — many of which tied to morale, ethics and the cohesion of society.
The most relevant approach for this context probably is that of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his view, eudaimonía (happiness) can be achieved through pursuit of the highest good or virtue — that, which is only means to itself and does not follow an ulterior motive. This self-purpose hasn’t been precisely defined, but corresponds to ethical-morale goals and a “specific function” (ergon) of each person, which constitutes of their special skills, capabilities and faculty of reason. To fulfil this specific function and develop one’s capabilities is virtuous and enables a life worth living, and thus happiness.

More practically oriented approaches

From the realm of popular science, the concept of the 3Ps definitely is worth mentioning. According to this concept, the three main sources for a fulfilling life or career are:
- Purpose (deeper meaning, transcending beyond oneself)
- People (appreciation from and for others)
- Passion (engagement in specific tasks and virtues)

The 3P approach has been applied and proven helpful in economical context (e.g. for leadership or in marketing) as well as in life planning.

An interesting approach for the processof finding a fulfilling life is Design Thinking. The chairs of Stanford’s Product Design Programme, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, wanted to help their students with their career choices and decided to combine insights from positive psychology with techniques from design schools. And it proved to be very effective. In their approach called Designing Your Life, they propose to quit pursuing a lofty distant goal and instead suggest defining a few basic values, finding small activities you know you enjoy, and developing new opportunities for job & life through creative techniques — and most importantly, try them out via rapid prototyping.

Approaches from Far East

Without any claim to completeness and unfortunately only with a very rudimentary understanding of the topic, here’s a small selection of approaches rooted in Asian culture:

In Japan, the concept of Ikigai (roughly „that which is worth living“), seems to be quite prominent. It consists of the intersection of four separate domains: What you are good at, what you love, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

Illustration from https://www.improvisedlife.com/2018/02/26/ikigai/

A longitudinal study published in 2008 (Ohsaki Study) found a prolonged life expectancy for people who found their Ikigai.

Zen, a form of Buddhism which developed in the 5. century in China, consciously abstains from sage wisdom and religious doctrine. Zen means to live life in its entirety — without attempting to understand it through reason. It focuses on one’s experiences and actions in the Here & Now and aims to silence the (ruthlessly active and) self-centred mind. Zen practice is to meditate and concentrate on the presence. You can reach the level of enlightenment (or fulfilment) by truly experiencing the moment and giving up yourself and your ego, to realize you are one with everything else and connected with all.

According to the studies of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, mankind finds fulfillment through life-long learning. His humanistic ideal was that of a righteous, ethical being — quite similar to the Greek philosophers. Righteousness is linked to the core virtues of seriousness, generosity, sincerity, diligence and kindness — and the means to reach a virtuous life is through the cultivation of knowledge.

End Note

This little overview of Happiness Applied approaches is meant to serve as a little tickle to start thinking about what it means to be happy. And I hope the insight that there are no sustainable shortcuts to a fulfilling life isn’t too disappointing. Maybe some of the ideas may even simplify our search for more happiness a bit, especially using the combined model — what do you think?

If you’re interested in the topic, and want to engage in the discussion or learn more I invite you to write a comment below or check us out directly: With zentor, we are continuously developing the combined model further — based on psychological insights, scientific research, and digital solutions — aiming to provide as many people as possible with a digital mentor on the path towards a fulfilling life. You can find us at www.zentor.me.