Martin Seligman’s 3 types of happy lives

I’m not a fan of the lazy belief that happiness is a worthwhile pursuit; it scares me that some people go so far as to organize their lives around it.

Dr. Drew sums it up for me:

I don’t buy into this happiness stuff…if you want to know happiness, look at a heroin addict. Now THEY’RE happy.

Or as Don so pithily sums up in Mad Men:

Happiness…is the moment before you need more happiness

Yet I found this Martin Seligman talk about happiness to be very interesting. Its insights are overlooked, or forgotten, in our happiness dialogue.

Seligman is a UPenn professor, psychology eminence grise and a key proponent of positive psychology (the academic label for happiness). His TED talk was recorded back in 2004, just as the happiness movement was finding its legs. Those legs are pretty tired, now, but you never know…

In the talk, Seligman says there are 3 types of happy lives:

1. The Pleasant Life – what most people mean when they talk about happiness; think George Clooney or that bubbly, cheerful office receptionist; it’s about creating and maintaining as much positive emotion as possible; about 50% of your baseline is inherited, and it habituates over time (you get used to it and need more)

Ok, got it. But there’s gotta be more…

2. The Good Life – think Elon Musk, Serena Williams; a life of engagement and flow, when time stops because you’re absorbed in the moment, in what you’re doing; “during flow, you can’t feel anything”; it’s about developing strengths and then applying them to every area of your life

We’re not done, yet!

3. The Meaningful Life – think Mother Teresa; using your strengths to serve something larger than you, typically a positive institution or moral issue. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

Ahhh, much better.

In your perfect world, you probably want a combination of all 3. Probably more of 2 and 3 than of 1, although to each their own. Just don’t ask me if I’m happy…I still can’t figure it out.

Watch the talk here.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.