Positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning & accomplishment

I own several positive psychology books, including “Authentic Happiness.” Its author, Martin Seligman, now says his emphasis on happiness is excessively narrow because happiness can’t explain “Why… couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why… billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it? And why… some people keep joylessly playing bridge?”

It’s possible people are foolishly deciding to have children, seek wealth and engage in addictive activities that don’t make them happy.

But Seligman now believes we need a broader conception of satisfaction:

“Watching [people] play [bridge], seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.”

This feeling of accomplishment contributes to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing,” a concept that Dr. Seligman has borrowed for the title of his new book, “Flourish.” He has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

I still suspect many people are chasing illusory visions of happiness, esp. the false belief that greater riches bring greater happiness. But I agree that working hard to raise children, for example, brings a sense of satisfaction that outweighs the loss of “happiness” a parent would have experienced had they instead spent those (thousands of) parenting hours on leisure.

I recoil at the lifestyle choice of this formerly successful author who has spent recent years addicted to video games:

Tom Bissell was an acclaimed, prize-winning young writer. Then he started playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. For three years he has been cocaine addicted, sleep deprived and barely able to write a word. Any regrets? Absolutely none.

I can see how a hedonistic lifestyle could be “fun.” But its utter lack of deep human connections and meaningful accomplishments just doesn’t feel like a recipe for true happiness. Positive emotion and engagement alone don’t a fulfilling life make.

I want to create things that help people, be an excellent husband, and raise happy, caring, well-adjusted children. I’ve wasted a few hours on iPad games, but that’s been about it. I’ve avoided video games since I was a teen (and even then played only a bit) precisely because I feel so empty after playing video games. I’d rather learn something or produce something.

Posted by James on Sunday, May 22, 2011