While certainly a part of well-being, happiness alone doesn’t give life meaning. In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman now asks, What is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build deep, lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure, and to contribute meaningfully to the world?
Authentic happiness theory versus Well-being theory
I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.
Three inadequacies in authentic happiness theory
The first is that the dominant popular connotation of ‘happiness’ is inextricably bound up with being in a cheerful mood. Positive emotion is the rock-bottom meaning of happiness. Neither engagement nor meaning refers to how we feel, and while we may desire engagement and meaning, they are not and can never be part of what ‘happiness’ denotes.
The second inadequacy in authentic happiness theory is that life satisfaction holds too privileged a place in the measurement of happiness. Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful mood, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology.
The third inadequacy in authentic happiness theory is that positive emotion, engagement, and meaning do not exhaust the elements that people choose for their own sake.
Well-being theory, and how it solves the above three problems
Well-being is a construct, and happiness is a thing. A ‘real thing’ is a directly measurable entity.
Authentic happiness theory is an attempt to explain a real thing–happiness–as defined by life satisfaction. Well-being theory denied that the topic of positive psychology is a real thing; rather the topic is a construct–well-being–which in turn have several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to well-being, but non defining well-being.
The elements of well-being
Authentic happiness theory comes dangerously close to Aristotle’s monism because happiness is operationalized, or defined, by life satisfaction. Well-being has several contributing elements that take us safely away from monism. It is essentially a theory of uncoerced choice, and its five elements comprise what free people will choose for their own sake. And each element of well-being must itself have three properties to count as an element:
- It contributes to well-being.
- Many people pursue it for its own sake, not merely to get any of the other elements.
- It is defined and measured independently of the other elements (exclusivity).
Well-being theory has five elements, and each of the five has these three properties. The five elements are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment.
Positive emotion. The first element in well-being theory is positive emotion (the pleasant life). It is also the first in authentic happiness theory.
Engagement. Engagement remains an element. Like positive emotion, it is assessed only subjectively (Did time stop for you? Were you completely absorved by the tast? Did you lose self-consciousness?)
Meaning. Meaning has a subjective component (Wasn’t that all-night session in the dormitory the most meaningful conversation ever?) and so it might be subsumed into positive emotion.
Relationships. Relationships, meaning and accomplishment have both subjective and objective components, since you can believe you have meaning, good relations, and high accomplishment and be wrong, even deluded.
Accomplishment. Well-being cannot exist just in your own head. It is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment.
Complement Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being with Nathaniel Branden on happiness.