Happiness seems to have almost magical properties. We have not got proof, but the science suggests it leads to long life, health, resilience and good performance. According to Professor Diener the evidence suggests that happy people live longer than depressed people.
Positive Psychology has brought the world a wonderful gift and rapidly advanced the understanding of human happiness.
The ingredients for a happy life
In his latest book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Diener sums up the results from his twenty-five years of research on happiness. He underlines four central ingredients for a happy life:
1. Psychological wealth is more than money. It is also your attitudes, goals and engaging activities at work.
2. Happiness not only feels good, but is beneficial to relationships, work and health.
3. It is helpful to set realistic expectations about happiness. No one is intensely happy all of the time.
4. Thinking is an important aspect to happiness. His theory of Attention, Interpretation, and Memory (AIM) helps people to increase their psychological wealth.
Diener also addressed several “myths” of happiness, some of which were inspired by his own research. He notes that while positive affect is not highly correlated with income after a certain point, life satisfaction is correlated with income. Also, while there is a strong genetic component to happiness we should not call this a “set point” since it misleadingly suggests that one has some kind of fixed level of happiness that cannot be changed. Furthermore, while most pop psychology emphasizes positive thinking and affirmations, experiencing negative emotions (rather than trying to get rid of them) actually has a significant impact on lasting happiness.
Finally, the idea that one should strive for happiness in life needs to be qualified. The focus should not be on getting married, making money, being good at work in order to become happy. Rather, the focus should be on becoming happy in order to have a better marriage, career, and purpose-filled life. Happiness is ultimately not about being happy. It’s about being happy in order to live a rich, varied, and meaningful human existence.
Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of FLOW – a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill – and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results. The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train and improve attention.
In short, flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.
Diener, E., Biswas-Diener, R. (2008): Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, John Wiley & Sons.
Diener, E., Seligman, M. (2002): Very happy people.
Eid, Michael, Larsen, Randy J. (Ed.) (2008): The Science of Subjective Well-Being
Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000): The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion.
Tal Ben-Shahar (2007): Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, McGraw-Hill Professional.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.