Martin Seligman established positive psychology—often described as “the science of happiness”—in 1998, when he was the president of the American Psychological Association. It was an attempt to remind researchers that psychology was not only about fixing problems, it was about helping people live better lives.
The introduction led scientists to focus on “the good life” and all of the elements of positive psychological functioning: optimism, hope, love, character strengths, and, above all else, happiness. Seligman published his thinking on the subject in his iconic book, Authentic Happiness.
Since the advent of positive psychology, numerous studies on happiness have been conducted, and numerous books have been written (e.g. Happier by Tal Ben Shahar, Happiness by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Raising Happiness by Christine Carter, and Stumbling into Happiness by Daniel Gilbert).
Basically, happiness has been the big wellness trend of the past decade, with experts coming forward to tell us what it is, why it’s important, and how to get more of it. But there is a shift occurring. Scientists are beginning to realize that happiness might not be the ultimate goal of human existence after all.
Paul Wong, for example, a researcher from Canada, refers to this shift as “Positive Psychology 2.0.” He suggests the field is evolving to a more balanced approach that not only understands the positive elements of life, but also how negative experiences sometimes lead us to moments of transformation and transcendence.
Many other researchers have joined him (Michael F. Steger, Joseph Ciarrochi, Todd Kashdan, Richard Tedeschi and Laurence Calhoun to name a few) in studying, not what brings happiness, but what brings a sense of meaning, purpose, fulfillment or transformation.
In Seligman’s latest book, Flourish!, he says he regrets the emphasis on happiness in the early years of positive psychology. He now promotes the concept of flourishing, which includes not only positive emotions, but also engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (or collectively, PERMA.)
You may be thinking that this is not such a big shift, since meaningfulness and happiness might often go hand in hand. But this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes we have to choose, and we need to consider which is most important to us. To better understand this dichotomy, consider these questions about your own life:
1. Can you think of times when great suffering developed you in some way, building your character or giving you a better appreciation for what you have?
2. Is there anything you believe in so strongly, that you would be willing to accept great sacrifice to protect it?
3. Is there anyone that you care about so deeply that you would sacrifice your own happiness to provide for theirs?
Sometimes on our journey, we come to a fork in the road. We can see happiness down one side and meaning down the other. The happiness path will always be more appealing, with feelings of joy, contentment, and pleasure along every step. The meaningful path, on the other hand, may be fraught with difficulty.
While the happiness path is more enjoyable, it doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere. But the pathway to meaning leads to growth, redemption, resilience, and fulfillment. If we can suffer the pitfalls, we come out feeling stronger, knowing ourselves better and with a deeper sense of purpose in our lives.
So ask yourself: Which path would you choose?
JEREMY McCARTHY is director of global spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Read more of his writing at psychologyofwellbeing.com.