Over the years, based on the growing body of research within Positive Psychology and based on my exploration of other disciplines – from philosophy to anthropology, from theology to neuroscience – my thinking evolved beyond understanding happiness as the integration of meaning and pleasure.
Today, the definition I find most useful as a student and teacher of happiness draws on the words of Helen Keller who more than a century ago wrote: “To me the only satisfactory definition of happiness is wholeness.” Drawing on Keller’s words, I define happiness as ‘the experience of whole-person wellbeing’. To further simplify the definition, melding the compound words whole-person and wellbeing, one might say that happiness is ‘the experience of Wholebeing’.
A great deal of research conducted by psychologists over the past few decades clearly points to the value of cultivating happiness. This value extends beyond the obvious benefit inherent in the experience of happiness: the fact that it feels good to feel good.
Here are just a few examples:
- Increasing happiness improves personal and professional relationships.
- Happiness is associated with a stronger immune system, and happier people live longer.
- Happiness and kindness are intimately linked, in that happiness makes people behave more kindly and generously, and in turn generosity and kindness contribute to happiness.
- In the workplace, a greater sense of wellbeing increases rates of employee retention and engagement, encourages innovation, reduces burnout, and increases both employee productivity and organisational performance.
Given these tangible and measurable benefits of happiness, it would seem natural that we would and should value happiness.
On the other hand – and this is where things become complicated and confusing – there is also research suggesting that an overemphasis on happiness could be self-defeating. A study by a University of Denver team in 2011, for example, found that people who place a high value on happiness are more likely to be lonely – a characteristic closely linked to unhappiness or even depression.
The study’s lead researcher, Iris Mauss, theorised that an intense focus on achieving happiness might lead people to neglect the very parts of their lives – relationships with others or self-care, for example – that could contribute to their happiness. Is valuing happiness, then, a bad thing? If we don’t value it, though, why bother pursuing it? Is self-deception perhaps the way to go? In other words, do we tell ourselves that even though we’re dedicating much 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 happiness, that is the question! The resolution of the paradox lies in the need to value (and pursue) those elements that indirectly lead to happiness. John Stuart Mill, 19th-Century British philosopher, argued that, “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness … Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
What could that “something else” 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, each element of Wholebeing – each 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 – bridging East and West, drawing on the works of philosophers, economists, psychologists and biologists – I have come to look at Wholebeing as a multidimensional, multifaceted variable that includes the following five elements, that together form the acronym SPIRE.
Read more about happiness:
- This is how much money you need to be happy, according to science
- The over 60s are getting happier, but the young are more miserable. Here’s why
- Parents and the childfree: A neuroscientist explains who is happier
Most people associate spirituality with religion, specifically with the belief in God. While spirituality can certainly be found in religion, it is possible to travel a spiritual path independent of religion.
Spiritual wellbeing refers to the importance of finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life, as well as to elevating ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones through mindful presence.
The understanding that the mind and body are connected – an understanding that challenges a Western approach plagued by dualism – is critical for physical wellbeing. The psychological and the physical are not two separate and independent entities, but rather connected and interdependent; happiness is not contingent on either the mind or the body, but rather on both.
To fulfil our potential for Wholebeing, we need to satisfy our needs for physical exercise, certain nutrients, sleep and touch.
While the connection between how intelligent we are and our happiness is ambiguous, there is a strong and definite connection between how we use our intellect and our happiness. Contrary to what legions of well-intentioned educators and parents seem to suggest, a stellar GPA and getting into a top college do not pave the path to happiness.
Rather, curiosity and openness, as well as deep engagement in learning, are the building blocks of intellectual wellbeing, and by extension of Wholebeing.
The number one predictor of happiness is not money or prestige, not success or accolades, but the quantity and quality of time we spend with people we care about and who care about us.
Healthy relationships constitute the core of a full and fulfilling life. But it’s not only our connection to our friends, family or colleagues that matters; cultivating a healthy relationship with our self 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 inform our thoughts and deeds – and they are the outcomes of our thoughts and deeds. Our emotional wellbeing depends on our ability to both cultivate pleasurable emotions, such as joy and gratitude, as well as deal with painful ones, like envy and sorrow, in a healthy way.
By focusing on the SPIRE elements, each of which indirectly leads to a happier life, we circumvent the trap of the happiness paradox. While highly valuing and directly pursuing happiness can backfire, we can enjoy higher levels of Wholebeing by engaging in work that is personally meaningful (cultivating spiritual wellbeing), exercising regularly and eating healthfully (physical wellbeing), learning continuously (intellectual wellbeing), spending time with a dear friend or family member (relational wellbeing), and writing about our feelings or engaging in fun activities (emotional wellbeing).
Happiness Studies: An Introduction by Tal Ben-Shahar is out now (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99).