Over the years, building on the growing body of research in positive psychology and based on my exploration of other disciplines—from philosophy to anthropology, from theology to neuroscience—my thinking has evolved beyond understanding happiness as an integration of meaning and pleasure.
Today, the definition I find most useful as a student and teacher of happiness is based on the words of Helen Keeler who wrote over a century ago: “For me, the only satisfactory definition of happiness is perfection.” Drawing on Keeler’s words, I define happiness as “the experience of each individual’s well-being.” To further simplify the definition, and to combine the compound words “whole person and well-being”, one could say that happiness is the “wholebeing experience”.
A great deal of research conducted by psychologists over the past few decades clearly indicates the value of developing happiness. This value extends far beyond the obvious benefit of experiencing happiness: the fact that it feels good to feel good.
Here are just a few examples:
- Increased happiness improves personal and professional relationships.
- Happiness is linked to a stronger immune system, and happier people live longer.
- Happiness and kindness are closely related, happiness makes people behave kindly and generously, so generosity and kindness contribute to happiness.
- In the workplace, a greater sense of well-being increases employee retention and engagement rates, encourages innovation, reduces burnout, and increases employee productivity and organizational performance.
Given these tangible and measurable benefits of happiness, it may seem natural that we value happiness and we should.
On the other hand – and this is where things get complicated and confusing – there is also research suggesting that over-focusing on happiness can lead to self-defeating. A 2011 study by a team from the University of Denver, for example, found that people who place a high value on happiness are more likely to feel lonely — a characteristic closely linked to unhappiness or even depression.
The study’s lead researcher, Iris Moss, hypothesized that an intense focus on achieving happiness may lead people to neglect the very parts of their lives — relationships with others or self-care, for example — that can contribute to their happiness. Is appreciating happiness a bad thing? If we don’t appreciate it, why bother going after it? Is self-deception perhaps the way to go? In other words, do we tell ourselves that although we devote a lot of time to its pursuit, happiness is actually not important to us?
We are left with a Shakespearean paradox: To value happiness or not to value it, that is the question! The solution to the paradox lies in the need to evaluate (and follow up on) those elements that indirectly lead to happiness. John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century British philosopher, argued that “those are only those who are happy who have their mind fixed on something other than their happiness…and they aim for something else, and find happiness by the way.”
What could this “other thing” be? This is where the concept of Wholebeing comes into play, resolving the paradox by shifting our focus from the direct pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of those elements that indirectly lead to happiness. Specifically, every element of Wholebeing – every part that makes up the whole – constitutes an indirect path to the promised land of happiness. What are these elements, these parts, these indirect paths?
In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of happiness studies—the link between East and West, drawing on the work of philosophers, economists, psychologists, and biologists—I have come to view Wholebeing as a multidimensional, multifaceted variable that includes the following five elements, which together form the acronym SPIRE.
Read more about happiness:
Most people associate spirituality with religion, specifically with belief in God. While spirituality can certainly be found in religion, it is possible to walk a spiritual path independent of religion.
Spiritual well-being refers to the importance of finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life, as well as elevating ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones through mindful presence.
Physically well – good
Understanding that mind and body are linked—an understanding that challenges the dualistic Western approach—is critical to physical health. The psychological and physical aspect are not two separate and independent entities, but rather interdependent and interdependent; Happiness does not depend on the mind or the body, but on both.
To fulfill our Wholebeing potential, we need to meet our needs for physical exercise, certain nutrients, sleep, and touch.
While the relationship between how smart we are and our happiness is ambiguous, there is a strong and specific relationship between how we use our intelligence and our happiness. Contrary to what legions of well-meaning teachers and parents suggest, excellent GPAs and entry to a top college do not pave the way to happiness.
Rather, curiosity and openness, as well as a deep involvement in learning, are the building blocks of intellectual well-being, and by extension Wholebeing.
The number one predictor of happiness is not money or status, not success or awards, but the amount and quality of time we spend with the people we care about and who care about us.
Healthy relationships are the essence of a full and effective life. But it is not only our attachment to our friends, family, or colleagues that is important; Cultivating a healthy relationship with ourselves is essential if we are to enjoy healthy relationships with others.
Emotions of course play an important role in our overall experience of happiness. They communicate our thoughts and actions – and they are the sum of our thoughts and actions. Our emotional health depends on our ability to develop pleasurable feelings, such as joy and gratitude, as well as deal with painful feelings, such as envy and sadness, in a healthy way.
By focusing on the elements of SPIRE, each of which indirectly leads to a happier life, we circumvent the trap of the happiness paradox. While a higher appreciation and direct pursuit of happiness can be counterproductive, we can enjoy higher levels of Wholebeing by engaging in personally purposeful work (the development of spiritual well-being), exercising regularly and eating healthy (physical well-being), and continuous learning (intellectual well-being) spending time with a dear friend or family member (relational well-being), writing about our feelings or engaging in enjoyable activities (emotional well-being).
Happiness Studies: An Introduction By Tal Ben-Shahar Out Now (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99).