What does it mean to be happy and what can the positive psychology movement teach us about happiness? These were two questions I had when I picked up Paul Martin’s “Making Happy People” (2005) in the library. It has a bright yellow cover with a smiley face on it and I was not expecting much to be honest. But so far I’ve reached page 56 and I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised. I still have some misgivings about the whole ‘science of happiness’ but we’ll get to that later.

Martin tells a nice story by way of introduction:

During a visit to France many years ago, the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan asked Madame de Gaulle, wife of the French president, what she was most looking forward to when her hard-working husband retired. To Macmillan’s surprise and embarrassment, Madame de Gaulle replied, “A penis.” Only later did it dawn on him that what she had actually said was ‘Happiness’.

I like this story, partly because of the little frisson of embarrassment which it creates in our minds. For me, it also poses the question of how important pleasure is to happiness. Are the positive psychology people saying that we should all just have more sex and then we would be happier? No, thankfully not. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, defines a happy life in terms of three dimensions: pleasure, engagement and meaning. It’s worth listening to his TED talk (from Feb 2004) in which he differentiates between the pleasant life, the life of engagement and a life of meaning. Ideally we should have all three but the second two are more important than the first.

Martin traces the word ‘happy’ back to the Old Norse word happ, which means luck or good fortune. I started wondering about the origin of the French word content as in “Je suis tres content” and the differences between the French and English understandings of happiness. ‘Content’ in English has two meanings: ‘that which is contained’ and ‘quietly happy’. This is rather neat since much of the unhappiness that I come across in my work has to do with feelings not being adequately contained. Anxiety that overwhelms someone and leaves them panicky for example, or other negative emotions which come from not being adequately held in a relationship.

Not surprisingly, Martin says that the “single biggest influence on happiness is … our relationships with other people”. And he also has a rather handy definition of happiness which has three main components: pleasure, the absence of displeasure and satisfaction. Happiness here is about the heart and and the head and it can be formulated like this:

Happiness = Pleasure – displeasure + satisfaction (and meaning)

According to this formula, what we need to be happy is the presence of pleasure, the absence of displeasure and then satisfaction, which is “judging, on reflection, that you are satisfied with your life in general and with at least some specific aspects of your life (for example, your personal relationships, career or physical abilities)”. The fourth aspect which is added on in brackets is that of meaning and it is this aspect which Seligman makes more of in his talk.

So far so good. But then Martin gets a little repetitive and boring. He bangs on about how happy people are healthier and more successful than unhappy people, implying (but not implicitly saying) that if the unhappy people could just learn to be happier then their whole lives would be so much better. This starts to look like blaming the victim and ignores the broader context. To be fair to him, the rest of the book seems to focus a lot on relationships so I should hold back on the criticism.

However, having recently read Jonah Lehrer’s piece on the usefulness of depression, I had to take exception to this paragraph:

Another dubious piece of folklore asserts that you have to be unhappy to be creative. Happiness encourages intellectual mediocrity, it is claimed, and creative geniuses are usually tortured souls. This romantic belief runs counter to the evidence, which I outlined earlier, that happiness boosts creativity; it is hard to find credible support for the ‘tortured genius’ hypothesis, even in the form of historical anecdotes. (p.38)

What a lazy argument! It’s so easy to dismiss views that don’t agree with your own when you can describe them as ‘dubious … folklore”, romantic beliefs and anecdotes. But then he balances it out by saying that there are some uses of displeasure and negative emotions after all. Lehrer referred to the close attention to detail which a more melancholic frame of mind can induce. Martin points out that the negative emotions are actually more important than the positive ones, certainly from a survival point of view. He says that there is also a greater repertoire of negative emotions than positive ones and these require specific attention. However, his focus is more on how to bring about happiness, which he says is quite straightforward and less complicated than unhappiness. I was reminded here of Tolstoy’s comment that happy families are all alike whereas unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.

Incidentally, he comes up with an optimal positive / negative ratio of 62:38 but I’m not sure if those are thoughts or feelings (or both) that are represented there. (I remember from one of Dorothy’s posts that Barbara Fredrickson has a similar ratio of 3:1 which is apparently the tipping point in bringing about positive change.)

I’ll be back with some more thoughts when I’ve finished. Already I can feel a slight shift, however, in that this approach to happiness holds thoughts and feelings in equal balance. We are often a lot happier than we realise and being engaged and finding meaning in our daily lives is a trusty (and now scientifically proven) way to lasting satisfaction.


13 Responses to Happiness

  1. litlove says:

    Oooh I love your comment about ‘content’ and its relationship to what is contained. That’s brilliant! I’ve read Martin Seligman before and been mixed in my feelings about him. I gather he used to be a very grumpy guy, got research to do positive psychology and had an epiphany. Problem is that he does tend to nag about people being unhappy with all the verve of a late-life convert. I am NOT convinced by ratios of any kind. We all know that you can feel downright miserable, and then a little thing – a piece of good news, the expression on a friend’s face, a hug from a child, can instantly tip the balance. It’s about the right thing at the right time.

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Litlove. And also for the background on Seligman. I also agree about the ratios. I’m amazed that people can take them seriously.

  2. I think we can always arrive at equanimity and peace, but I don’t think that happiness is controllable. It comes and it goes, like other feelings. I like the word contentment, and the associations you point out.

    • Pete says:

      Yes, I think that sometimes the more we try and control it, the more it eludes us. What I liked about the broader definition of happiness is that it removes the focus a bit from “feeling great” to a more nuanced picture.

  3. David says:

    The happiness/unhappiness ratio made me literally laugh out loud. I wonder at what points one is meant to calculate this ratio? Hourly? Daily? At the end of life?

    I do, however, agree with the idea that unhappiness is in no way useful to creativity. I think that most great art explores profound emotion, including negative emotion, but I also think, from doing creative coaching, and from being around writers and singers, that joy and healthy pride in one’s work creates just as meticulous and polished a result as the obsessiveness of miserable perfectionism.

    • Pete says:

      Good point, David. And I was reminded that when writers are unhappy and have writer’s block, they’re certainly not very creative. Jonah Lehrer had some interesting points on this (on his blog I think). While happiness (or bubbly happiness) is good for creativity, a more reflective state could be better for revision and editing. Maybe it’s also the state of not being quite happy with what you’re produced which makes you always strive for improvement.

  4. Grad says:

    I wonder if there really is a formulaic approach to happiness. One thing I have noticed at this point in my life, the happiest people I know are those who are the least self-absorbed.

    • Pete says:

      Grad – There certainly are happiness formulas. I read one the other day which had a whole string of variables which I can’t remember. I get confused with 5HTP, which is the building-block of seratonin. I was interested to hear Seligman say that studies have found that the happiest people (in the Hollywood sense) are those who are the most social. Not good news for people who tend to be loners.

  5. natalian says:

    I agree with the statement that we are a lot happier than we realise however when we do become unhappy the gravity which we give the stressor can outweigh the happy contented state we may have found ourselves in. It is interesting how one is always able to focus more on the unhappy emotion than when we are experiencing the happy contented state of being.

    • Pete says:

      Yes, and interesting to hear it confirmed that there is a greater repertoire of unhappy emotions than happy ones. Although I guess that’s also debatable. As for dwelling on the unhappy emotions, I think there are often good reasons for doing so but sometimes it’s good not to dwell too much. Where do you strike the balance? Not an easy question.

  6. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting! Fredrickson also talks a lot about how we dwell on unhappy emotions more than happy ones, but that we often actually spend more time in positive states than we realize, and if we can focus on those positive states more and make a point of dwelling on them, that we can begin to overcome the focus on the negative. I like the idea that it’s as much a matter of awareness as of changing anything. And of course we shouldn’t ignore the negative at all — that would be disastrous. But so often we seem to block the positive out or forget about it quickly.

  7. doctordi says:

    I personally loathe the ‘tortured creative genius’ model – it’s so bogus, and yet still the dominant popular conception of ‘true creatives.’ I hate it, not least because I am a pretty content, happy person naturally, so the idea that this somehow hampers my creativity or stalls my potential as a writer just drives me INSANE. really it’s a model that just indulges bad behaviour and poseurs.

    Great discussion, Pete. It’s a very nuanced, changeable, impermanent but desirable state, but here’s hoping we all get our share.

  8. IRS Lawyer says:

    You are right Nick. The Stand Your Ground law does not apply.

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