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The hierarchy of happinesses

We all differ in the things that make us happy. While it may seem that happiness is a highly subjective emotion

Professor Martin Seligman identifies three levels of happiness in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness. They are:

  • Pleasure - raw feelings like ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance etc. They can include a cool shower when you are too hot, a cup of tea after dealing with a problem, the cuddle of your child, watching a movie or a favourite soap, the taste of a fine wine. 'The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components' they are evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking,' says Seligman.
  • Engagement - these activities absorb us much more fully than simple pleasures but are not necessarily accompanied by raw feelings - enjoying a great conversation, rock climbing, scoring a goal, getting immersed in a great book, playing chess, singing in a choir etc. 'Time stops for us, our skills match the challenge, and we are in touch with our strengths. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures.' This ties in closely with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of 'flow', that when we are completely absorbed in something that is challenging, but within our range of ability, times goes past unnoticed and we get a deep sense of accomplishment. 'Perhaps flow is the state that marks psychological growth', says Seligman.
  • The meaningful life - this involves using our signature strengths in the service of a higher cause. 'Signature strengths are the lasting and natural routes to gratification' the gratifications are the route to what I conceive the good life to be. 'Authentic Happiness' includes a questionnaire to check your own signature strengths, or you can do the test on the web.

In Seligman's view, the pursuit of pleasure is the least important when we are searching for happiness. Which rather turns normal thinking on its head, given that we so often try make ourselves happier by opting for the easy hit that comes with transitory pleasure - a bar of chocolate, a pint of beer, having sex, going to the movies. In themselves, there's nothing wrong with any of these, but once they are over the pleasurable feeling diminishes rapidly. 

More than 200 years ago the Scottish poet Robert Burns was aware that while pleasures are enjoyable, they don't last:

But pleasures are like poppies spread
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed
Or like the snow falls in the river
A moment white - then melts forever 
Tam O'Shanter

It is in the pursuit of the gratifications and 'the good life' that we find contentment, long term satisfaction and happiness. Speaking at the Centre for Confidence and Well-being's Vanguard Programme in Glasgow (September 2005) Seligman summed up the results of his latest research on how to live the happy life:

What should we pursue if we want the most life satisfaction? The results are quite surprising. Basically, you can ask people the extent to which they pursue positive emotion in life, the extent to which they pursue engagement in life and the extent to which they pursue meaning in life. And we found that pleasure doesn't matter very much. If you'd asked me in advance, I would have said that pleasure was the big one - but it is the small one. So it's the pursuit of engagement and the pursuit of meaning that have the substantial effects on life satisfaction. It turns out pleasure matters but it seems to matter only if you have the other two. So if you have engagement and meaning in your life then pleasure adds significantly. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts if you have all three.

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