The varieties of happiness

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We all know intuitively that there are different kinds of happiness. The pleasure you get from your favorite food is different from the sense of fulfillment that comes from donating to charity or helping your children with their homework. Not all forms of happiness require being in a cheerful mood with a smile on your face, and activities like child rearing, which make you happy on one level, can often be decidedly unpleasurable. So what are the various forms of happiness�or as psychologists prefer to call it, well-being�and how do psychologists define them?

First, there is �positive emotion,� which refers to moment-to-moment feelings of happiness, warmth, comfort, and pleasure. Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, puts it this way:

“It is the feeling common to the feelings we have when we see our new granddaughter smile for the first time, receive word of a promotion, help a wayward tourist find the art museum, taste Belgian chocolate toward the back of our tongue, inhale the scent of our lover�s shampoo, hear that song we used to like so much in high school but haven�t heard in years, touch our cheek to kitten fur, cure cancer, or get a really good snootful of cocaine.”[1]

A second form of happiness is engagement, which refers to being in �flow.� Flow, sometimes called being in the zone, is a state of effortless absorption in an activity that causes you to lose track of the passage of time. First described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of positive psychology, flow occurs during activities that demand your full attention, making you so engrossed in what you�re doing that you stop thinking about time, your surroundings, and even yourself and your own emotions.

Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state in which you are �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�[2].

Flow is accompanied by a deep sense of joy, but since you�re not aware of thoughts or feelings during the experience itself, you recognize the feeling only in retrospect, when you look back and think, �Wow, that was awesome.� Flow can happen during immersive work such as composing music, preparing food, or writing code, but also occurs in challenging leisure activities like surfing, mountain climbing, or even playing video games.

Third, there is �meaning,� which refers to having purpose and feeling connected to something larger than yourself. Meaning is an important component of well-being because moment-to-moment pleasures, especially artificial and fleeting pleasures such as drugs, shopping, or surfing the web, leave us feeling empty unless we also devote ourselves to being part of something greater, says Martin Seligman, another founder of positive psychology. �I go into flow playing bridge,� Seligman explains, �but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am merely fidgeting until I die.� Meaning, by contrast, is about belonging to a community, serving others, and feeling a sense of purpose in life. It�s why we decide to have children and raise families, seek out careers we can be proud of, donate to charity, and affiliate with religions, political parties, and communities. As Seligman puts it, we need to build not just circuses, but also libraries[3].

More recently, Seligman proposed two additional pillars of well-being: accomplishment and positive relationships. Accomplishment is often accompanied by engagement and a great sense of meaning, Seligman argues, but is often pursued for its own sake. Pursuing wealth, excelling at athletic competition, and achieving career success, he argues, bring a sense of accomplishment that�s separate from meaning.

Finally, Seligman proposes, positive relationships with other people are a profound component of well-being. Laughter, joy, meaning, and accomplishment almost always occur in the presence of others or in connection to them, which is why many of the most effective positive psychology interventions involve interaction with or appreciation of other people and their role in our lives.


1. Gilbert, D. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage
2. Geirland, J. (1996). �Go With The Flow.� Wired, September 1996.
3. Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.