Beyond Happiness

The boundaries of our well-being are expanding, pushed by the field of positive psychology.

Happiness surely has its fans and I am among them. Books with the word “happiness” in the titles fill shelves and bestseller lists. A quick book search of the term on Amazon pulls up 98,439 results. And social media posts about it have attracted increasing attention and lots of likes. Search with the hashtag #happiness and you’ll find a near endless list of posts on Twitter. “Happiness” is everywhere. A show by Oprah on the subject launched me on the path that led me mid-career to study the illuminating field of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

And so, as a new student, I was initially baffled when I saw that leaders in the field critiqued the use of the word “happiness”. For example, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, has frowned upon the term for lacking both utility and specificity. Barbara Fredrickson, known for her “broaden and build” theory regarding the benefits of positivity, has argued that there are better ways to capture the construct of positive feelings. And Christopher Peterson, who literally wrote the book on positive psychology, asserted that the word was not nearly broad enough to encompass the expansive nature of well-being. But these renowned scientists aren’t downers. Far from it.

In introducing the field of positive psychology at the turn of the new millennium, Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi heralded an expansion of psychology’s focus to include the positive — what makes life worth living — as a supplement to the discipline’s historical concentration on pathology. And though they acknowledged that many before them had opined on related concepts, they asserted that the field would soon set itself apart with the development of a body of empirical research to back up its findings. Over the last 15 years that research has come to fruition and continues to grow, showing that happiness is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our well-being.

Seligman’s broad vision of well-being consists of five elements: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement. The handy mnemonic used for his model is PERMA. Researchers have dived into each of these components, demonstrating how they contribute to the good life — optimizing our experiences, opening our minds, strengthening bonds, improving our health, and leading us to more fulfilling work. And so, when pioneers in positive psychology caution us about use of the word happiness, they aren’t really questioning its value. Rather, they are drawing our attention to its limitations.

With a newly found appreciation of well-being’s depth, I’ve expanded my search beyond the self-help section on Amazon to learn about what makes people flourish and why. It’s more than pearls of wisdom passed down through generations or epiphanies realized in spontaneous moments of enlightenment. Thanks to the field of positive psychology, we now have theories that have led to hypotheses, been tested in experiments and statistically validated. So while Oprah and others championing the crusade to live our best lives have given us a lot to think about, positive psychology has given us truth. And the truth is that if we want to thrive, we must expand both our vocabulary and our reach — beyond happiness.

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