What Color Is Your Happiness?

Just as Italians have eight words for for love, we need more colors for happiness. The simple-minded version will not do; life is too complex, we know too much, there's too much pain to be satisfied with a naive idea of what it means to be happy—and to be human. To accommodate a larger vision, Martin Seligman, PhD, the godfather of the positive psychology movement, has created a three-zone model of happiness. Beyond the first tier, what he calls the Hollywood view of happiness ("getting as much positive emotion as possible"), a second kind of happiness arises from discovering our "signature strengths," which range (in Seligman's list of 24) from honesty, kindness, and forgiveness to ingenuity and love of learning.

Seligman's third zone consists of using your strengths in the service of something larger than yourself.

So it seems that transcending our own needs, now and then, and learning to sacrifice what we want for the greater good could boost our happiness to another level.

But volunteering each and every week at your local soup kitchen might not leave you blissed-out if you haven't taken care of your personal issues. (We've all known grim-faced do-gooders who tried to save the world while ignoring their own unhappy selves.) Before attempting to leapfrog our problems, we need to look at the nuts and bolts of everyday life—beginning with the question of work.

In his recent book, The Art of Happiness at Work, coauthored with the Dalai Lama, psychiatrist Howard Cutler, MD, reports three basic approaches to work, whatever the profession. "People tend to see work as a job, a career, or a calling," he tells me from his Phoenix office. In the job approach, work is seen as a means to an end (money), offering no other reward. Career-minded folk have a deeper personal investment in their profession, marking achievements not only through monetary gain but through advancement within their chosen field. Finally, those who view their work as a calling show passionate commitment to "work for its own sake," focusing as much on fulfillment—human relationships, how what they do affects the world—as on monetary gain.

In 1997 Amy Wrzesniewski, PhD, who is now an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at New York University's Stern School of Business, coauthored an important study of people in various occupations, from so-called menial to high-level professional. The reported levels of SWB were consistent with the approach each individual took toward his or her work. Those subjects who felt it was a calling had "significantly higher" SWB than those who saw it as a job or a career.

This would seem, at first glance, to surgically remove our bitching rights about how we earn a living. Work—whether inside or outside the home—can be a place to express ourselves, a place to practice being happy, or the seventh circle of hell. We can learn to "craft" our jobs into a calling, Wrzesniewski says, by becoming more active participants in the design of our work lives. In a study involving a group of hospital maintenance workers, for instance, she and her colleagues found overwhelming evidence of a disparity among people doing the same job. Those who deemed themselves unskilled and did what was asked of them—and no more—were far less happy (and effective) than those who reinvented the job for themselves, went beyond the call of duty, believing that what they were doing— however outwardly mundane—mattered nevertheless.

Naturally, some days a job is just a job and professional discrepancies (income, internecine politics, and so on) cannot be denied, but it does appear that plowing our own field well, instead of comparing ours to the next guy's, makes us happier. "Just look at the Ten Commandments," urges Michael Eigen, a New York psychoanalyst. "To covet is the gateway to pain."

Indeed, there is an undeniable link between SWB and how we perceive ourselves in relation to the norm. Feeling that we fall short, possess less than people around us, invites a sense of discontent. With workaholism now at a peak, unfortunately, this competitive spirit frequently spirals out of control. Professor Lord Richard Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, calls such "fruitless work"—more than is necessary to do the job—a source of "social pollution." It's a contagion of envy and striving that keeps us consuming without feeling better. "We find, as nations grow wealthier, that once we're above abject poverty, wealth makes little difference to citizens' well-being," he tells me from a phone booth in the House of Lords. "When everyone is striving, it's like a football game where everyone stands up: You still have the same view only now you're less comfortable because you're standing." With upward mobility comes other unfortunate side effects as well, depriving families of time together and fragmenting communities.

In his lectures, Layard points to evidence that rates of clinical depression, alcoholism, and crime have all increased in the post–World War II era despite periods of economic growth. Working beyond our own limits, as Layard suggests, not leaving enough for ourselves on the side, we often compromise our own happiness as well as the greater good. "The last two decades have seen a serious assault on the communitarian ethic," says Layard. "There is such a thing as objective happiness, but it must be shared." If we stop focusing on personal gain as the only path to happiness, then perhaps we can turn outward. "I badly want to reinstate the Enlightenment belief that the moral act is always the one that produces the greatest overall happiness."

"In the end, happiness is a choice"


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