Three Kinds of Happiness

Three Kinds of Happiness

In a recent interview published in the New Yorker, author and social commentator Naomi Klein (probably most famous for her 1999 book No Logo) said:

“the amount of labor we are putting into optimizing our bodies, our image, our kids, is robbing from the work that needs to be done to preserve the habitability of the planet”.

I’d like to add that it also means we are missing opportunities to do a lot of other good and potentially more satisfying things. Why is that important?

Three kinds of happy lives:

Prof Martin Seligman talks about 3 kinds of happy lives:

  • The pleasant life where we experience maximum positive emotion and have the skills to amplify that positive emotion.
  • The good life in which we focus on engagement, be it social engagement, engagement with work and family or with our special interests. It involves having something in our lives that provides us with the experience of “flow” – that wonderful feeling of deep involvement where time stops.
  • The meaningful life in which we use our strengths in the service of something bigger than ourselves.

Life Satisfaction vs happiness

The research tells us that the kind of life that provides the most life satisfaction is a meaningful life, one in which we apply our skills and talents for the greater good. This does not mean dedicating our entire lives to a cause but spending just a little energy on something that is important to us in the world instead of ourselves.

A good life comes next in terms of life satisfaction. Developing a habit of doing the things that really engage you on a regular basis might be a very therapeutic exercise. Maybe it is exercise – or it could be reading, writing or ikebana or a million other possible things that cast their spell on you.

Interestingly, a pleasant hedonistic life, focused on maximum pleasure, provides no input to measures of life satisfaction at all. Seligman describes pleasure as the “cream on the cake” which is not nutritious and only lasts a moment but which certainly enhances the enjoyment of the cake. The cake needs to be there for lasting satisfaction.

These ideas really speak to me

I talk to many people who seem to think that money, more glittering prizes and a better body will make them happy – and maybe they will in the short term – but it won’t provide lasting satisfaction without a basis of engagement and meaning.

How is this helpful?

Discussing the three kinds of happy life with someone can open their eyes to other ways of thinking and other possible life pathways. It de-emphasises the superficial and focuses on satisfaction rather than happiness. Happiness is a side effect – an additional benefit of a considered life.

What ad who do you love? What are you good at? What would you like to become good at? What do you care about? I there anything you can contribute?

These are all good questions worth pondering in the search for a satisfying life. It may take a while to find some answers but spending some time searching for the answers is well worth the effort.

More resources


For a taste of the kinds of things positive psychologists do to increase happiness take a look at the BITEBACK website and the 6 week mental fitness course on the site.