Happiness & Flourishing
The psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has done extensive research on happiness. She has explored the multiple benefits of happiness and has investigated how it leads to positive psychological outcomes. She also offers the best definition of happiness that we have found.
In her book, The How of Happiness (2007) Lyubomirsky defines happiness as follows: Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment or positive wellbeing, combined with a sense that life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.”
With this definition, Lyubomirsky has managed to combine both hedonic (pleasure) and eudaimonic (meaning) conceptions of happiness and, in fact, insists that happiness is impossible without both elements. Her definition includes sensual pleasures, elation and joy, along with the calmer conception of happiness that consists of peace and contentment. And, she includes the Aristotelian idea of living a good life, one that is meaningful to us on a personal basis, and one that may be judges as worthwhile by others.
While I like Lyubomirsky’s definition and plan to use it throughout the Better Brains by Design series, I wish it wasn’t the definition of “happiness.” The concept we are trying to define includes the two important elements of pleasure and meaning. I worry that the word happiness, particularly in modern usage, strongly evokes the concept of pleasure, but is weak in terms of evoking the concepts of meaning, purpose and a life-well-spent. Ask the average person on the street if they are “happy” and they will respond in terms of how much pleasure they are feeling. They won’t (I’m surmising) consider whether they are leading the good and meaningful life. They won’t ponder their current sense of self-worth or their sense of personal growth and development.
I’d love to find a word to replace happiness that clearly implies both pleasure and meaning. Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman has been using the term flourish and, in fact, uses it as the title for his recent book. Flourish has some lovely connotations that can accommodate both pleasure and meaning.
To flourish is to thrive, to be at the height of one’s powers and to experience the full blossoming of one’s potential. This gets at the meaning side of the equation. When we say that our garden is flourishing we evoke images of luxuriant, exuberant growth, filled with lush blossoms that delight our senses. That aspect captures the pleasure side. For now, we will use flourish to mean the combined feelings of pleasure and meaning.
So, to flourish is to experience a range of positive feelings including joy, awe and the delight of sensual pleasures as well as feelings of serenity, calm and contentment. These pleasurable feelings are intimately linked with a sense that we are living a good life, a decent and responsible life, one that brings us personal satisfaction and is judged worthy by others because we have been kind, cooperative and compassionate.
Without the elements of satisfaction and worthiness, feelings of joy and awe would seem hollow. Without pleasurable delights and a sense of serenity, the good life would seem lifeless without reward and benefit.
The MINDRAMP mission is to promote long lives worth living. To achieve this goal, The Better Brains by Design initiative provides practical approaches that enable people to achieve the two core aspects of wellbeing - brain health and flourishing.