Is Happiness Overrated?

By Jason Marsh | May 17, 2011 | 0 comments

The founder of positive psychology zeroes in on what really matters.

The term “positive psychology” is often thought to be synonymous with “happiness.”

But according to Martin Seligman, widely considered the founder of the field, there’s more to positive psychology than happiness—and, more importantly, there’s more to life than happiness as well.

Martin Seligman Martin Seligman

Seligman is featured in a New York Times column today by John Tierney, exploring the limits of the concept of happiness.

Tierney reports that Seligman has come to believe that the term “happiness” is too often confused with just feeling good; instead, leading a good, truly happy life requires more than positive emotions. To truly maximize our “well-being”—or to “flourish” (the title of Seligman’s new book)—we need five crucial elements, which Seligman summarizes in an acronym he recently created, Perma: positive emotions, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task, aka “flow”), relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

In other words, “Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,” Seligman writes in Flourish. “Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment.”

Seligman’s take on happiness and well-being really resonates with us here at Greater Good—it explains why our tagline is “The Science of a Meaningful Life” rather than, say, “The Science of Happiness.” The term “happiness” often simply implies feeling good, conjuring images of someone with a smile plastered on his face, blissfully unaware of the world around him—not really what you think of as the “greater good.”

The definition of “happiness” can seem highly subjective. And the things that might make some of us feel good in the moment aren’t necessarily the things that make life feel worth living. Lots of studies show that more money doesn’t bring more happiness—but even if it did, wouldn’t we still feel that there’s more to life than owning a second home? Or, as Tierney wonders, if life’s just about pleasure and moment-to-moment happiness, why do people have kids? He writes,

Some happiness researchers have suggested that parents delude themselves about the joys of children: They focus on the golden moments and forget the more frequent travails. But Dr. Seligman says that parents are wisely looking for more than happy feelings.

“If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago,” he says. “ We have children to pursue other elements of well-being. We want meaning in life. We want relationships.”

This doesn’t suggest that pursuing happiness is totally unimportant and irrelevant to a good life. But it does suggest that we should broader our notion of true happiness—it’s much more than momentary feelings of joy and a positive mood.

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About The Author

Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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