Three key ingredients for life satisfaction (a happy life): pleasure, engagement and meaning

The pursuit of pleasure, engagement and meaning in life is likely to increase happiness or life satisfaction, productivity as well as physical health

The field of psychology is changing. A discipline known as positive psychology has emerged and it argues that until about 10 years ago we were solely focussed on making sick people better and failed to realise that we could also be helping people who are relatively untroubled to improve their lives.  I can’t help but wonder if this focus could also help to prevent, at least some, people from slipping down that slippery slope to developing disorders where psychological and/or medical/pharmacological intervention is needed and where the need could become long-term.

Martin Seligman (said to be the founder of positive psychology) et al are determined to change this. In Seligman’s TED talk he covers three lives or three elements that contribute to a happy or satisfied life: the pleasant life, the life of engagement and the meaningful life.

The pleasant life

This is a life where we have as much pleasure and as much positive emotion as possible. It’s pursuing hobbies that you enjoy and activities that you’re good at. It’s having fun. It’s hedonism. It’s having a good social life and surrounding yourself with people. Laughing and smiling a lot. It’s full of liveliness and enthusiasm. This experience can be further improved through learning skills such as mindfulness in order to savour each experience and make the most of it.

There is a downside however to the pursuit of a pleasant life. Firstly, we quickly get used to the things that make us feel positive emotion. The first time we have positive emotion in relation to a particular experience has the greatest impact then each time we have the same experience after that it is slightly diminished until the experience produces little or no positive emotion at all. Another downside to the pursuit of pleasure is that our experience of positive emotion is largely genetic and inherited and although there are things we can do to increase our sense of happiness we can only increase it by 15 to 20 percent the rest is just how we’re made.

The life of engagement

This is different from the pleasant life in a very obvious way. When experiencing pleasure or positive emotion we know we’re experiencing it, we can feel it, we like it and that’s why we want more. However during ‘flow’, engagement, immersion, you are in a state of deep concentration and you don’t feel anything. You forget your woes, you forget yourself, you forget everything, you’re no longer aware of the passage of time and it seems to stop. This is a very satisfying experience. Positive psychologists such as Seligman think there’s a recipe for flow, for a life of engagement. It’s essentially knowing what your highest strengths are and then finding a way to use them as much as possible in life be it in work, love, play, friendship, parenting – in everything and as much as you can.

See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on the theory of Flow for more on the life of engagement.

The meaningful life

Like engagement or flow the meaningful life involves knowing what your highest strengths are and then using them to participate in and belong to something larger than you are. This is altruism, philanthropy, giving to others in some way. In research studies of different interventions it’s been found that if someone writes a testimonial about their gratitude to someone who they never properly thanked for changing their lives in an impactful way – the feeling of happiness far outweighs those of depression and can last for months after the message is delivered (in-person or over the phone) (Martin Seligman TED talk).

So which has the most/least impact?

Research has shown that impact of the three elements on life satisfaction is the opposite of what we might expect. Meaning has the biggest impact, engagement also has a significant impact and pleasure, perhaps surprisingly, has little impact on life satisfaction in itself. Where pleasure has most impact is once we already have engagement and meaning in our lives and then pleasure is the icing and the cherry on the cake.

Potential reach of the three key ingredients

Those working in the field of positive psychology are now looking into whether these three elements might be the key to productivity e.g. in the workplace as well as physical health i.e. does good health come from a combination of pleasure, positive engagement and meaning in life? The belief is that the answer is likely to be yes.

The potential cost to human happiness

Historically the study of psychology has focussed on sickness rather than wellness (e.g. happiness, life satisfaction). Whilst there’s no doubt this focus that has lasted 60 years has made some extremely important progress it has also come at a cost in three main ways according to Martin Seligman (Martin Seligman – TED Talk).

The first cost

We focussed on the condition of being a victim; of being someone who has something done to you and on the medically and psychologically abnormal; of being a person who lacks control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. We failed to acknowledge that we have autonomy; we have choices and thus make decisions and therefore that we are responsible for the choices we make and the decisions we take.

The second cost

We forgot about ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ people. People who may not be suffering from any of the mental health conditions mentioned above but who nevertheless would benefit from some improvement in their lives. These people may not be particularly troubled but could still be happier, more fulfilled and more productive. And if we take this up another level we have completely neglected genius – apparently nobody is concerned with the experience of genius.

The third cost

Again because we were focussing on disease, sickness and abnormality we were trying to make unhappy people better or at least less unhappy, we were trying to repair damage. We never thought about designing and testing interventions with the aim of making people happier. This is of course happening now but we’re about 50 years behind.

My personal experience of the three key ingredients

Pleasure: When I was much younger i.e teens and early twenties I was interested only in the pursuit of pleasure. It was mostly socialising and partying with friends. Like many I was deluded and assumed that was the only route to happiness and it after a while or by a certain age it was no longer satisfying nor happy-making. I don’t remember having many hobbies sadly although I enjoyed sport and played several sports at school. I did love dance but there wasn’t much opportunity to pursue it which was a shame. I also started learning guitar and saxophone but didn’t stick with either, sadly.

Engagement: I’m not entirely sure when I first experienced flow but I know I’ve experienced it and I know both consciously and subconsciously how I can get it. For me music (singing, percussion) and dance both provide an immersive experience where I forget myself. I enjoy it and am good enough to completely lose myself in the experience where I have little awareness of the environment around me or the passage of time. I’m also aware that there’s plenty of room for improvement and so challenge myself to work on it and to get better which contributes to the flow experience. I also know that if my level of skill is not being challenged the flow experience breaks and at best I’m back in the room again, at worst I’m frustrated.

Meaning: According to Seligman and colleagues the meaningful life provides the highest degree of life satisfaction and this is exactly the one that is most lacking in my life. In my job I have a small sense of helping others and contributing to society but it’s pretty insignificant and hands-off. I have for a long time felt that I want to contribute more but have not known how I could do this. I have not been able to envisage a route that felt comfortable, right – until now. I have only recently started to realise what an appalling mental state we’re in collectively as individuals, as families, as friends, as communities and as societies and have only just begun to understand that the (somewhat lacking) life experience I’ve had to date is probably not as isolated as I’ve always thought. I am beginning to see how I might be able to contribute in a more meaningful, involved and I hope impactful way but it’s taken entering my fifth decade on earth to get here and this is just the beginning… Perhaps I just wasn’t ready until now.