What is real happiness? The happiness pursuit – part 2.

A year ago I wrote a post “the pursuit of happiness”. Everybody wants to be happy right? Isn’t that the end-goal of life? Last year I argued, based on my data, that going on holiday, not working, and being with my girlfriend and friends were the gateway to my happiness. In the discussion of that study I already started doubting that. But it kept me doubting for a while. Should I quit my job? Should I travel the world, and do fun things for the rest of my life? Well, maybe I should do that. Maybe that will make happy all along. But before doing something that rigorous, I decided to start questioning myself. I started questioning whether I tracked happiness properly. If I made mistakes while tracking, my conclusions would have been too rigorous. Thus, I went searching for the science behind happiness. How can you track happiness? I found many studies that used similar methods like mine; just tracking happiness with a 1-10 scale. Thus, several researchers were happy with my method, and made rigor conclusions with it. But I wasn’t satisfied, and went on searching through the literature and found multiple studies and comments that showed that happiness is more complex. Now it becomes interesting.

There are many views on happiness, and many views argue that there are more dimensions of happiness. For example: the view of Martin Seligman, the founder of “Positive psychology”. According to Seligman, there are three dimensions of happiness. These are:

  • Pleasure and gratification (instant desires; tv, sex, food, etc.)
  • Embodiment of strengths and virtues (doing what you’re good at; hobbies, work, etc.)
  • Meaning and purpose (activities for the greater good; helping, inspiring others, having a purpose etc.)

Dividing happiness in different dimensions isn’t just something that Martin Seligman came up with. Regular scientific articles also showed dimensions like this. Ryan and Deci (2001) for example divided happiness in two dimensions which are the hedonic happiness and eudiamonic happiness. The hedonic happiness focuses on happiness and defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance. Eudaimonic happiness focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning. This seems quite similar with Seligman definition. Thus, I wanted to work with these definitions of happiness.

Over the past year, I was tracking general happiness but I was not aware of the tree different dimensions of happiness. Thus for this experiment, I wanted to understand the happiness I tracked for a year. Secondly, I wanted to learn how my life is formed around these three dimensions of happiness. Am I living a “happy” life in all dimensions?

How did I do it?

For this experiment, I tracked my happiness every evening, like I used to do in my evening diary using TapLog. But secondly, I started tracking my daily pleasures and gratifications, embodiment of strengths and virtues, and meaning and purpose as well. I just started to track these variables with a subjective score (1-10). After 223 days I sat down to analyze all of these variables. Firstly, I performed correlations on the data and based on those outcomes I performed further analysis.

What did I learn?

When looking at figure 1, it shows that the happiness that I used to track was mostly concerning doing the things that I am good at (strength and virtues), and related to instant desires (pleasures). Together, these things make me considerably happy. I can relate to that; whenever someone asks me; are you happy? I always evaluate on my current status; am I happy, right now? Food, sex, and fun things like hobbies do make me happy right now. But having a purpose does not relate to my current happiness, this can be found in my data.

Pleasures and Purpose also have a negative relation with each other. When I fulfill easy desires like relaxing, and eating, I can’t perform any actions that have a meaning for the greater good. But on the other hand, my Strengths and Purpose do have a relation with each other. This could be explained by the fact that I find a lot of purpose in the work that I am doing. Secondly, I feel that I embody my strengths while working (0,434, p<0,001). The relation between my Purpose and perceived productivity is therefore very strong (0,697, p<0,001). Currently, my work and QS-hobbies contribute most to my purpose. I believe that Quantified Self and monitoring the development of (self-)tracking technology is very purposeful for humanity. And luckily, what I am pursuing in my work is in line with my embodiment of strengths and virtue’s (flow).  That looks quite good for me. But working doesn’t give me Pleasure happiness.

Happiness meaning pleasures strengths positive psychology justin timmer
Figure 1. Relations between dimensions. Green bars are positive relations. Red bars are negative relations. The numbers (range 0-1) indicate the strength of the relation. The closer to 1, the stronger the relation.

How important are instant pleasures?
According to research, all of these three dimensions might be just as well important. But if you look at Seligman’s website, he seems to spotlight “purpose” as the most important one. I do agree with that, but if I fully pursue giving purpose to life, I have to give up on several instant pleasures. However, these pleasures contribute a lot to my current definition of happiness. But “Purpose” is something very subjective and can change over time. This is something you can use in your advantage to reach happiness.

One way to reach happiness is make your purpose very easy achievable. If I change my perception from my purpose: “saving the world” to something cheesy, like the purpose of “having good friends”, then I can have pleasures and purpose combined. I can relax and do fun things with my friends, what will make me very happy. However, I am not able to do this yet, I want to have an idealistic purpose. I won’t settle for something that easy. Thus I can make it a little bit more difficult. I can make my purpose of life a little bit harder but still achievable. If I start to believe that working 40 hours a week is my share for saving the world, than I can keep doing the pleasurable activities in the evening. In that way I can balance my Purpose with Pleasures. But is that enough for me? I still don’t know. It is still a constant struggle of balancing pleasures and purpose. Thus, If I am unwilling to compromise with my idealistic thoughts, I should go full pull for my purpose. I should work all day to achieve the idealistic purpose of my life.

Thus, basically it is very easy. To reach your purpose, you have two options. The first option is to settle, and redefine your definitions of purpose to something achievable. If you don’t want to settle, you need to act. You have to change your actions resulting in behavior that is in line with your definition of purpose. This is something that is also applicable for the other two dimensions; you can act on, and redefine your pleasure, and strengths happiness dimensions as well.

Redefine your definitions of happiness
A fictional example, if you are caught in a cell during world war III in Guantanamo bay, with only bread and water to survive, you think you would become unhappy. However, if you redefine your personal “purpose” while being in that cell you can sustain happiness. If you redefine your purpose to “surviving another day”, and you are able to survive (embodiment of strengths and virtue’s), you are already happy in two dimensions. You might have less pleasures, but if you define “getting bread every day” as a great pleasure, you can (theoretically) be very happy in your miserable cell. These concepts are all perceptions in the mind and are very hard to change. Referring to others, and your own past to is something what we do all the time.

Changing your actions to become happy
if you are not able (or willing) to change your definitions of happiness, you would become very unlucky in your cell. Your definition of happiness and your circumstances do not meet each other. You can also solve this by taking actions. You need to escape! If you are able to escape, then you can return to your normal life and do the things that are in line with your definitions of happiness. It is easy as that.


If you are able to equalize all your actions with all your three definitions of happiness, then you have fulfilled all three dimensions of happiness (figure 2). You might say that at that point, you reach a larger happiness what I would call “contentment”, I think there are no better words for it (although, this feels too weak). This doesn’t mean that contentment is the  best thing you can reach. You might have agreed with very low definitions of happiness to live by (like the prisoner). But if your definitions and actions are very pleasure, and meaningful, you might be able to reach some form of “enlightenment.”

Currently, on average I score myself on meaning  a 4,9, on pleasure a 6,4, and on strengths a 6,0. Thus, my definitions and actions aren’t in sync. But for you this doesn’t mean anything, because you don’t know what my definitions and actions are. The biggest problem in my situation is that pleasures and meaning have a negative correlation. This makes me unable to ever reach “contentment” with my current definitions and actions. I am not sure what I will do now. But changing my actions or definitions will be the first step to contentment, and I hope in one day; enlightenment.

Figure 2. My theory to reach contentment
Figure 2. My theory to reach contentment

Parts that did not fit in the full story
There were several things I still wanted to discuss but didn’t fit in the full story. These are described below.

This story is all about subjectivity
This article really discusses the problems but also beauty’s of subjective self-tracking. Giving a rating to something that is subjective, is giving a score on the discrepancy between your actions and definitions about something. Both things can change, thus over time might not be reliable. Secondly, between persons these things are very different. Nonetheless, happiness, and many other things are something truly subjective and personal, and therefore very meaningful.

You can never reach enlightenment
If you are able to equalize your definitions and actions of happiness, as high as you can. Resulting in a state of enlightenment. But this is also a subjective state. You might discover people somewhere else who are even more enlightenment than you are. Thus, you will need to have higher definitions of enlightenment to reach it again. It is an iterative process. You will never get there, unless you stop comparing yourself with others, or with your own past. Then your enlightenment will become just “enlightenment” and not a comparison with anyone else. But if it becomes incomparable, then it means nothing, or everything (okay, this is maybe a little to deep).

The first easy solutions to contentment
To reach contentment, this is the thing you should do: you should come up with an activity that gives you pleasure, which you are good at, and is very meaningful. If you can fulfill all dimensions of happiness with one activity, you will reach contentment very quickly. You will become more and more enlightened by the day. But what is this activity, and can you do it all day? That depends on you. Currently, I can’t think of one.

The second easy solution to contentment
If you sync your definitions of happiness very close to your actions of happiness, it makes it easy for you to become content. If you are able to reason with every action you initiate: “I do this because it makes me happy”, your actions define your definition of happiness. That can be quite creepy, because if you truly believe that, you can do very cruel things that make you very happy. If you do it the other way around; “I know what makes me happy, and therefore I do that”, your definitions define your actions. And you can become very happy as well. But in this case, you have to be able to do the things that make you happy, every time. Resulting in a  almost unreachable happiness. When looking at it altogether, I believe that the healthiest solution is probably somewhere in the middle of the two options though.

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