Let me introduce you to my friend Marjorie. Marjorie has a rockstar job as an advertising executive, two kids in elementary school, a husband she adores, a house with a backyard, a dog without fleas and a knitting circle that serves bottomless strawberry margaritas at their monthly meetings. If you asked her—in secret, where nobody could overhear her and think she was smug or a show-off—she'd say, "It's true. I do have a pretty happy life."
And yet, on the average day, she rushes off to the office at 6 a.m., works out during lunch, races back home at 6 to make dinner, bathe and tuck in her kids, and then spends the rest of the night paying bills or lying on the floor with the broom, trying to whack free all trapped Legos from underneath the couch.
This, you might ask, is happy? One has to wonder if that's the best adjective to use to describe our lives—and, thanks to recent developments in psychology, whether that particular emotion really motivates any of our actions. Marty Seligman, PhD, who rose to prominence in the '90s due to his scientific research in how to help patients become happier, has now reversed his earlier position in his recent book Flourish, claiming that we take a more mature, multifaceted look at our goals.
"What I want to do," he says, "is get people to open the door to understanding why they choose to do what they do." The need for a challenging career or lovable (but demanding!) children or running marathons may be motivated by something else entirely: the desire for self-fulfillment or even plain old accomplishment. These different inspirations may not result in classic joy, but they can result in something more complex and important: a sense of well-being.
Scientifically, there are all kinds of ways to evaluate and measure this quality, but one of the most intriguing is the nationwide Gallup-Healthways poll which Seligman, along with other experts in the field, contributed to. Each evening, Gallup representatives call 1,000 random American people and ask them a series of questions, inquiring about everything from their exercise habits to their marriages and bills. (As of its debut in 2008, the project has surveyed more than 1,200,000 people.) The answers are fascinating: Hawaii (no surprise) has the highest level of well-being of any state, followed by (surprise) North Dakota. Education is the key predictor of emotional health over age 65, and positivity is in abundance in people across Alaska and Wyoming.
Putting statistics aside, you may be wondering about your own well-being. Jim Pope, MD, chief officer of Healthways, the company that co-sponsored the poll with Gallup, has shared five slightly altered questions from the real nightly survey, and explained how they relate to our levels of satisfaction and contentment. You can use them as a window into the state of your life, and then ask yourself one simple thing: Am I just getting by? Or am I flourishing?