Happiness is more like a car, less like a building.
I have written elsewhere that five modes of positive being are as good or better than happiness itself—
- Goals—making progress towards a goal
- Fit—having goals that build on who you are, not who you are not
- Flow—having goals that are challenging, but not too much so
- Altruism—having goals that entail service to others
- Relationships—pursuing goals in a way that builds high quality relationships
Some would put these five elements, or some other similar assortment of happiness “ingredients,” into a hierarchical arrangement, much like a building with floors. According to these theorists, you must satisfy one element before you can proceed to the next, and so on, until you reach the highest element—the pinnacle of happiness.
This is not my approach. I consider each of the five elements effective at achieving a sense of subjective well-being in and of itself. Of course, if one engages in all five, or a combination of the five, the payoff would be greater.
Rather than thinking of these elements hierarchically, like a building with five floors, I suggest we think of them as a vehicle—car, train, bicycle, bus, airplane…. Every vehicle needs a destination—a goal. Without a destination, the vehicle lacks a purpose. Unless one uses the vehicle to make progress towards a goal, why have the vehicle?
Every vehicle needs fuel to power it to its destination. For me, the equivalent of fuel in this analogy is the degree to which a person’s strengths are engaged in pursuit of their goal—their “fit.” To the degree that one’s salient traits, abilities, values, experiences, and physical experiences are engaged, a person will be more motivated, more energized, in pursuit of their goal.
The other three elements are like adjustments we can make in pursuit of our goals. We achieve flow—that sense of being totally absorbed in the moment—by taking on goals that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If bored, increase the challenge of the goal. If frustrated, decrease the challenge or increase your skill. We achieve service in goal pursuit by choosing goals that have a positive impact on others. This could be achieved by a wide range of emphases—from relieving misery to entertaining others. We achieve relationship quality in goal pursuit by involving others in our goals in a way that allows others to be fulfilled by our goal pursuit as much as we are—sharing, intimacy, interdependence, and all that.
Where are you going? What fuel will you use to get there? How will it positively impact family, friends, customers, co-workers, and citizens at large? How will you avoid frustration and boredom? How will you build high quality relationships during the journey?
A Note on Chilling: One of my teammates vetted this piece yesterday, saying “Excellent blog. However, there’s nothing like just chilling out and not worrying about goals and such.” I agree. On the other hand, there’s no chilling out like an activity that is characterized by fit, flow, relationships, or altruism. Chill by engaging one of your salient strengths—for me, that would be something that employed my imagination, love of complexity and analysis, or passion for beauty, especially music. Chill by doing something that is neither boring nor frustrating, but in flow. I chill by reading, so don’t read boring and don’t read excess complexity. Chill by hanging with a friend or pet and furthering the relationship. Chill by visiting someone who needs attention—take a bucket of whiskey sours to someone who’s moving into a new house and have a drink with them. Fit, flow, relationships, and altruism are fine ways to chill!