Posts tagged happiness
I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.
Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.
Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.
To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.
Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.
Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.
How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:
- Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
- Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
- Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
- Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)
Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values ) needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between. If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.
Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!
Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone- this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .
in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!
PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.
I maintain a separate blog at Flourish Mentoring, which is dedicated to positive psychology based leadership and educational engagement topics. There I recently posted a series of 10 blog posts that are designed as mini-lessons (between 600-800 word each), all focused on being happier @ work.
I’m cross posting the links from that course here. Hope you enjoy reading the ten mini-lessons and are able to apply it to your work life.
Collected below are links to all the ten mini-lessons:
- Why Happiness (at Work)
- Helpful tips to be happier @ work
- Creating a positive, gratitude filled culture
- Finding meaning in work
- Orientation towards work and job crafting
- Remaining motivated at work
- Optimistic and Positive attitude
- Setting powerful goals
- Discovering and deploying strengths at work
- Leading positively
Do let me know how you liked the posts and whether you would like to see more of such themed collection of posts in the future?
Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology whereby I parse phenomena along 4 dimensions- Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Drive/Dynamic in nature.
I have also posted elsewhere about the four major goals of life. To recap, I believe that all humans are driven by these four major goals- Happiness, Success, Meaning and Integrity. If the parallels to ABCD are not obvious let me make it explicit.
The route to Happiness is via maximizing Positive Affect and minimizing negative Affect. Success is achieved by actively indulging in Behavior and by being engaged with the task at hand; Meaning is cognitively constructed and Integrity or morality at its core is about motivations or Drives.
All the above is more or less situated in the positive psychology paradigm, and the new Positive Psychology 2.0 looks beyond positivity to include existential concerns.
Now, I have been fascinated by the existential philosophy for quite some time, and have also explored its application to psychotherapy by Irwin Yalom etc. As per Yalom, we all must face up and try to resolve these four existential givens: Death, Isolation, Freedom/ responsibility; and Meaninglessness. All these are facts of life and we have to come to terms with them.
Death is inevitable; we can never truly get into the skin of the other, so existential loneliness also has to be dealt with; we are free to choose how to respond and that places a heavy burden of responsibility on us- we have to take ownership for our actions/ inaction; finally given the cosmological perspective, our lives are perhaps meaningless- if anything we are burdened with providing an essence to our life(existence) , rather than otherwise.
Existential thinking is heavy stuff; but I guess all of us, start pondering such questions even when we are a small child; and continue revisiting them again and again, refining our tentative answers and resolutions to questions like these.
In the British school of existential therapy (cooper/Van Deurzen), these givens are seen as predictable tensions and paradoxes of the four dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms (Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Überwelt).
I find that fascinating. To me there appear to be two dimensions- one personal (Freedom/responsibility) vs interpersonal/ social (Isolation/ loneliness) and the other Material/ physical (Death/ finitude/ embodiment) vs Spiritual/ psychological ( Meaninglessness/Un-Known). One has a focus on self , the other focus on others; the third a focus on the physical world, while the fourth is concerned with the spiritual realm.
And its easy to relate it to the ABCD/Four major goals of life:
The thoughts about Death (Physical) lead to embodied affective responses that can impact Happiness. Your behavior with others, whether you are able to connect authentically or not, determines your existential Isolation and loneliness (interpersonal) The interpersonal domain is also where you are able to taste your true Success/ Status. The drive towards personal Responsibility and freedom (personal) makes you moral and retain integrity. The recognition of oneself as a being striving for meaning, and impact in the real world, makes you paradoxically a spiritual person.
I like this marriage of Positive psychology and Existential Psychology and wish more and more people are driven towards the PP2.0 movement!
There is a well known finding in psychology that experiential purchases, or experiences, are better for your happiness than material purchases, or possessions.
However, the picture, as always, is more nuanced and complicated. For starters, happiness means all things to all people, and is likely to be multi- dimensional. Secondly, a sole focus on material or experiential ‘purchases’ detracts from other useful ways of thinking about happiness, say in thinking that happiness can also arise from gifting or helping others.
Before we go further, I would like to break down happiness into its components. Happiness/ well-being, has been traditionally conceived as made up of three components that are measured separately. The first is an absence of negative emotions; the second is a presence of positive emotions and finally the third is satisfaction with life.
Now some of you may be wondering why we need to differentiate between a lack of negative emotions and a presence of positive emotions; if that’s you go back to positive psychology 101 tenet no. 1: negative emotions and positive emotions are separate constructs and an absence of one doesn’t guarantee the presence of the other.
It has also been found that for e.g. money has a different relationship to these; if your income is below a certain level you are likely to have a lot of struggle and negative emotions; beyond a certain income you don’t derive as much positive emotions as you should with increasing income and the line flattens, and finally measures of life satisfaction are more closely correlated with accumulated wealth than are measures of positive/ negative emotions.
The components are also measured differently; while life satisfaction can be reliably gauged from self report survey, a better measure of positive/ negative emotions are achieved by the experience sampling method.
To me, this break-up of well-being into negative emotions, positive emotions and life satisfaction seems incomplete and I propose adding another component to the mix: life outlook.
Life outlook, is how excited you are about the possibilities of the future, and in your ability to make your dreams come true; it is future oriented, unlike life satisfaction which is past oriented; though like life satisfaction, I believe, it can be reliably measured by self-report method. This involves an attitude of looking forward to whatever life has to offer; to be truly considered ‘happy’ one should be hopeful and optimistic, rather than resigned or pessimistic.
So well-being= ‘presence of +ve emotions’ + ‘lack of -ve emotions’ + ‘life satisfaction’ + ‘+ve life outlook’
I now want to return to the experiential vs materialistic purchases. In my opinion, materialistic purchases are about our (extrinsic / socially conditioned) ‘wants’ while experiential purchases are about our (intrinsic) ‘needs’.
And that leads me to posit that perhaps there are different selves involved when we undergo an experiential consumption vs a materialistic consumption. I’ll call these experiential (or experiencing) self and materialistic (or material) self.
Also recall the distinction Daniel Kahneman makes between experiencing self and remembering self and add to the mix the homo prospectus (you can know more about Prospection here) concept of Martin Seligman, which I will refer to as the Anticipatory self. So what do we get:
- Materialistic self: focused on fulfilling one’s wants; if wants are thwarted discomfort ensues, but if they are met, at best, you are in a state of hedonistic pleasure. So you have a pleasure-discomfort polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘negative’ or unhelpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as less governed by this materialistic self as possible, because whether they be emotion of discomfort or emotions of lazy pleasure, they really serve no good. Acquiring material goods does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to have’ attitude.
- Experiential/ experienced self: focused on fulfilling one’s needs; if needs are not met, pain ensues (and that makes us focus on how we can meet the needs), while if needs are being met one is joyous and on cloud 9. So you have a joy-pain polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘positive’ or helpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as much governed by this experiential self as possible, because whether they be emotion of pain or joy they really are serving immense good (pain for survival; joy for thriving via broaden and build) . Acquiring experiences does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to do’ attitude.
- Remembered self: focused on creating a coherent narrative about the self, if narrative is coherent and as per the image one wants to have of oneself, then contentment happens; else their is a sense of regret. The polarity is contentment-regret. And this is what perhaps would be the life satisfaction axis. It entails a ‘to be’ attitude.
- Prospective/ Anticipatory self: focused on creating new futures and possibilities, this is the prospective self. If the ideal self seems reachable and we are confident about attaining it, hope ensues; otherwise there is resignation to fate. So the polarity is hope-resignation and the axis is the life outlook axis. It entails a ‘to become’ attitude.
So whats the answer? Should we do or be, become or have; I think we need to indulge in all of these, in moderation, but ‘to become’ seems to be the best bet for your well being and flourishing!
Lastly, we know that material purchases impact our unhelpful emotions axis as well as our life satisfaction axis; while I guess experiential purchases will help our prospective self too in addition to our experienced self as its only via accumulated experiences that we become. But I have a feeling that there may be other ways to increase life satisfaction and life outlook and would love to hear your thoughts on the same.
I recently came across an authors@google talk by Rick Hanson, who is the author of ‘Buddha‘s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom’ and was immediately drawn by the similarity of the framework he uses and my ABCD model. Rick draws a lot from the Buddhist tradition and its humbling to find many similarities between what buddha preached thousands of years ago and what neuroscience tell us today.
In particular the root cause of suffering is believed to be due to
1) trying to avoid unescapable threats/ pains etc like ageing and death.
2) pursuit of pleasures/opportunities etc that are fleeting in nature/ not permanent.
3) trying to separate from and become individuated while the nature of reality is connected and interdependent.
4) trying to stabilize that which keeps on changing
The roots of these Rick believes are tied up to the three (I’ve extended them to 4) motivational systems that govern us. These are:
1) Avoid system – reigning this in leads to Calm , a sense of peace and increase in a feeling of moment-to-moment Happiness.
2) Approach system – properly aligning this leads to Contentment, a sense of gratitude and increase in feelings of Well-being.
3) Attach system – properly utilizing this leads to Caring, a sense of loving-kindness and increase in feelings of Love.
4) Absorb system – properly using this leads to Creativity, a sense of insight and increase in feelings of Wisdom.
To me these are absolutely aligned to the ABCD model; the Avoid system is primarily about reacting to -ve (or even +ve ) Affect; Approach system is driven by how Behaviouraly actively or passively you respond to opportunities; the Attach system is all about the dynamics driving the Self-other relational issues; while the Absorb system is the more Cognitively focussed one driven by broad / narrow focus concerns.
Rick also thinks that these are related to how the learning (synaptic strength modification) , regulation (inhibition or excitation due to firing) and selection (the decision to fire based on summation of inputs) happens in brains at synapse levels and that reigning these systems leads to Mindfulness (attention relevant/leading to learning) , Virtue (self-regulation of behaviour) and Wisdom (the ability to make informed choices) at the macro level. As Rick believes that not only brains lead to minds, but what and how our minds act also affects our neural wiring due to self-directed neuroplasticity, he advocates practising mindfulness, virtue and wisdom to rewire your brain to take it to the Buddha’s state.
Here one might pause and consider what mind actually is. some would equate it simply as mind is what the brain does, but more reflection shows that mind is multidimensional (ya…. fits the ABCD model). To me, mind is a result of:
1) Brain Activity
2) Body rootedness (embodied cognition)
3) Embedded with Other minds (relational construct)
4) Shaped/interpreted by culture
Another thing to note about Rick is that he is a fan of Paul Mc lean’s tripartite brain; extending both the MacLean model and Rick associations and aligning with ABCD model, I see the evolution of brain as:
1) Brain-stem (Reptilian brain) : the relative brain sizes in reptiles or those driven by this Avoid mode system should be proportional to their land areas that they need to defend as in territorial defence; this is what I predict, the greater the area/ territory they typically defend the bigger this area. In the reptilian evolution this factor must have driven brain evolution.
2) sub-cortical areas ( Paleomammilian brain) : the relative size of brain in these simple mammals should be tied to their foraging area or how vastly they explore for food/ mating opportunities. I predict that brain evolution during this phase was tied to the Approach mode and linked with exploration propensity and must be linked with typical foraging area, with animals foraging far and wide having bigger brains proportional to those who don’t.
3) cortical areas ( mammalian brain ) : the relative size of brain in these higher mammals corresponds with the social group size (the famous Dunbar number) . This phase of brain evolution was primarily driven by Attach motivational system where concerns for others and groups drove evolution of brain with those having dense social groups needing more brainpower.
4) Neocortical areas/ lateralizations (the human/primate brain): the relative size of brains might be related to artistic/ imaginative ability. This phase of brain evolution is still taking place and is being primarily driven by Absorb system; how much one assimilates and accommodates and how much one intellectually rejects would determine whether the brain evolves further and proportional to how creative (broad-minded) the species is. The more narrow minded/ unimaginative the lesser thee neo-cortical size; perhaps this is the advantage we had over Neanderthals and other hominids. The autism-schizophrenia continuum may be one effect of the cognitive evolution still happening.
Which brings me maenderingly to my final comparison:
2) Behaviour or Approach system deregulation leads to Addiction. The neurotransmitter of concern here is Dopamine. Compare also to cloningers Novelty Seeking
3) Drive/Dynamics or Attach system deregulation leads to Bipolar or manic depression. The neurotransmitter of concern may turn out to be norepinephrine. Compare to cloningers Reward Dependence.
4) Cognition or Absorb system deregulation leads to Schizophrenia . The neurotransmitter of concern may turn out to be acetylcholine.
That covers the major group of disorders. I’m still reading ‘Buddha’s brain’ and not all insights shared above are related to what Rick/ Buddhism says; but I find them broadly aligned with my ABCD model and the eight stage evo-devo model based around Theodore Millons four basic polarities.