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Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The Full Life versus the Empty Life

Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park and Martin E. P. Seligman

Published in 'Journal of Happiness Studies', 6, 25-41, 2005

This study investigated three different orientations to happiness and their association with life satisfaction using data gathered via Internet surveys.  The researchers suggest increased happiness can be achieved by gaining pleasure and meaning from our activities.  These routes to happiness can be considered as positive emotional experiences whereas an alternative orientation to happiness, that is, the pursuit of engagement, can be considered as non-emotional.  This is because full engagement in an activity involves the psychological state of 'flow', where time passes quickly and one loses their sense of self because they are so absorbed in what they are doing at that moment in time.  According to the researchers, flow differs from hedonism and, although it may be meaningful, it may actually be incompatible with the pursuit of pleasure.  

In addition to investigating the extent to which the pursuit of pleasure, meaning and engagement affects life satisfaction, this study aimed to determine whether or not a clear distinction can be made between each of these individual routes to happiness.  Furthermore, the researchers wanted to ascertain whether or not an orientation to pleasure is incompatible with an orientation to engagement.  The participants consisted of 845 adults who voluntarily completed online measures of life satisfaction and the three different ways to be happy.  Demographic details were also collected, including age, gender, marital status, education and ethnicity.  

The findings demonstrated that people scoring low on all three routes to happiness, that is, low scores for pleasure, engagement, and meaning, reported the least life satisfaction, which the researchers refer to as the 'Empty Life'.  In contrast, those scoring high for pleasure, engagement, and meaning, considered by the authors as experiencing the 'Full Life', reported the highest levels of life satisfaction.  

The study also found that each orientation to happiness is in fact distinguishable.  However, an orientation to pleasure was not as strong a predictor of life satisfaction compared with orientation to engagement or meaning.  Moreover, they are not incompatible therefore people can effectively gain increased life satisfaction from the simultaneous pursuit of pleasurable, engaging, and meaningful activities.  Therefore the Full Life predicts higher levels of life satisfaction than the Empty Life.

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