The Many Paths to Happiness

How do you define happiness? It's definitely something we think we understand but is very difficult to define.

Some positive psychologists don't even like to use happiness as a measurement and replace it with well-being, life satisfaction, or some other measure that is supposedly more specific or easier to measure. Regardless of whether you're going to use "happiness" as a topic of research, I think it's important to have a good understanding of what it actually means. Knowing what it is means we have a better chance of finding it for ourselves.

To that end, there's three ways I encourage you to think about your happiness -- through meaning, through pleasure, and through engagement. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park, and Martin Seligman developed a questionnaire that aims to measure the various paths that people take to happiness (see the paper here).


One way many people find happiness is through aligning their life with some higher purpose or meaning. Religion fits that description for some people. For others, it's the pursuit of a social ideal or the support of some type of organization. People who feel highly connected to their work and view it as a calling are likely to score highly in this subscale. Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, or being true to one's inner self, is a concept that aligns closely with a life of meaning.

If you identify highly with this path to happiness, you probably feel like your life serves some kind of higher purpose. Your choices tend to take into account other people and how they will be hurt or benefit from your actions. You're likely to believe that your life has a lasting meaning and what you do matters to society.


Hedonic pleasure, or the accumulation of positive feelings, is another path on the route to happiness. This is the philosophy that was supported by people like Epictetus, Aristuppus and later used as the philosophical core for utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number of people). A life of pleasure is concerned with the summation of all positive and negative events in an individual's life. Many people initially think of pleasure when trying to articulate happiness.

If you score highly in a life of pleasure, you enjoy doing things that excite your senses. You seek out euphoric activities and anything that will be physically pleasurable. You'd be very likely to agree with the statement, "Life is too short to postpone the pleasures it can provide."


Lastly, another path to happiness is spending time on activities that produce a sense of engagement, or flow. Flow is the timeless state that many people slip into when they're actively engaged in an activity that requires so much involvement and concentration that they lose self-consciousness and become completely immersed in an activity. Many athletes describe it as "being in the zone," but a life of engagement is available to anyone doing almost any activity.

If you identify most closely with a life of engagement, you'd agree with the statement that while you're working or playing you're very often unaware of time. You'd be likely to seek out situations that challenge your skills and abilities and you often lose yourself in the day to day activities of living.


As you were reading the descriptions of the three different paths to happiness, I'm guessing you had a gut reaction as to which one was "right." At least, one may seem "more right" than the others. However, the three researchers who developed this scale discovered that people who scored highly in all three subscales were also the people who scored highest in other life satisfaction scales. Evidently, utilizing only one path to happiness is not as effective as cultivating all three paths to as great extent as possible.

When I completed the survey for a class that I'm taking, I wasn't terribly surprised by my results. I scored highest in meaning, followed by engagement, with pleasure bringing up the rear. All three of my scores weren't as high as I'd like them to be, but the order in which they appeared made sense to me. Even though I'm non-religious, I do believe that the work I do has meaning to the world and that I try to be in the flow state as possible. However, it's apparent to me that I'm forgoing some of the benefits of a life of pleasure and therefore giving up a completely viable path to happiness. There are things I can do, such as learning how to savor experiences, that gets in touch with what it means to live a pleasurable life.

If you read the paper and filled out the scale (which is kind of confusing, but I can't seem to find an interactive version of it anywhere online), did your scores surprise you? Even if you didn't fill out the scale, what do you think your scores would have shown you? What path to happiness are you currently neglecting and what can you do about it?

A good starting point for your personal development is identifying which path toward happiness you're neglecting and to figure out ways to make it a more prevalent part of your life. Living a meaningful life, finding ways to be engaged, and seeking out pleasurable experiences are all equally valid ways to increase your own happiness.

Edit -- The lovely Lori emailed me to say that she found a resource for taking this test, and others, online. If you click this link and scroll to the bottom you'll find the "Approaches to Happiness Questionnaire," which is the one I'm referencing in this article. Thanks Lori!