Positive Psychology: The 3 Sources of Happiness

Most of psychological research is concerned with either the basic stuff (mental processes that all humans share) or the bad stuff (mental abnormalities and illnesses). Positive psychology, a relatively new branch, instead wants to find out what makes a normal life more fulfilling and why some people are happier than others. Happiness has become such a popular topic in magazines and self-help literature, everyone seems to have an opinion about it. This overload of information has made it pretty difficult to distinguish actual scientific evidence from lay psychology. This post is part of a little series about some of the theories and applications of positive psychology that have been backed up and replicated by solid research.

One of the first things that was established is that you can directly influence your own happiness, which is good news, isn't it?

So… what makes us happy?

Love, money, lots of friends, nice things? Many studies have aimed to pin down very specific factors that directly cause happiness. Although there are a good number of correlations, few of the findings are totally reliable or consistent, mainly because we all value different things: some might say it is desirable to live in a big city, while others dream of living in the countryside. Rather than searching for specific factors, positive psychologists have looked at how people interpret those activities that make them happy. They found three distinct sources of happiness: Pleasure, Challenge and Meaning. These are the ingredients of all things that make us happy and they can be combined in different ways. Ideally we would spend most of our time doing things that include one, two or even all three sources.

Pure Pleasure: An immediate positive sensation, hedonism. Activities that are pleasant (but not challenging or meaningful) like laughing at a joke, eating chocolate, walking in the sunshine, a good memory, reading, swimming in the ocean, listening to music, anything that feels good in that exact moment.

Pure Challenge: The sense of accomplishment we get after we did something that required us to use our skills to solve a problem. Exercising, job interviews, writing essays, reading a challenging book, even running for the bus. You don’t enjoy the activity, but you feel satisfaction afterwards.

Pure Meaning: Any activity that we consider to be worthwhile and that has a greater purpose. Contributing to a social cause, working to pay the bills, helping your neighbour, going to school to get closer to your dream job, generally improving yourself. Parents will probably do quite a few activities in the purely meaningful category, stuff like changing diapers, spending all their money on their babies and getting up in the middle of the night. They are not difficult to do and not pleasant either, but have a higher purpose.

Pleasure/Challenge: Things that you like doing but that also require some effort, like playing sports, writing, doing a diy project, going shopping during lunchtime (those are my personal examples :). Activities that fall into this category have the greatest “flow” potential, which is when you are so absorbed into doing something, you forget everthing around you.

Challenge/Meaning: Things that require some effort and have positive consequences. Helping out at the animal shelter, giving up smoking, losing weight, writing job applications, etc..

Meaning/Pleasure: This is a pretty cool category. You are doing something that is meaningful to yours or other people’s life and are enjoing it at the same time. This happens to me when I actually like the book I have to read for an exam.

Pleasure/Challenge/Meaning (Joy): Very happy people spend a lot of time doing activities that are pleasant, challenging and meaningful. Many big significant events fall into this category, like proposing or graduating. But many small, tiny things also do, and they enrich our lifes too. For me writing this blog post is one of them.

It is possible to make most activities more fulfilling by adding one or more of the three sources. The next time you have to do something super boring, try to make it more pleasant, challenging or meaningful. Here is how:

Add pleasure: Use all of your senses: be aware of what you are feeling, seeing and hearing. Try out new things. Bring a friend. Have a laugh. Treat yourself along the way.

Add challenge: Set yourself goals that are realistic but still a stretch. Do whatever you have to do in less time. Try to surpass your usual standards. Try to reach additional outcomes. Try to achieve the same outcome but in a different way.

Add meaning: Consider the positive impact of this activity: What will you be able to do afterwards that you wouldn't have been able to do without? Think about the positive things that this activity says about your personality or how it reflects positive sides of your identitiy.

What is your main source of happiness? 

What kind of things do you do that tap into all three sources?

If you want to know more, read anything by Martin Seligmann (THE positive psychologist) or books of the Mind Gym series, which were the main inspiration of this post.