Are you happy?

Psychologist and researcher Dr. Martin Seligman, author of ‘Authentic Happiness’ (2004, Free Press), asserts that happiness has three components:(1) mood, (2) meaning, and, (3) how engagedpeople are in what they’re doing.

‘You could think of [these] as three different ‘takes’ a person has on his or her life,’ says Dr. Seligman. ‘When a kid is deciding what job to take, the questions are: how much positive emotion will it provide, how engaging will it be, and how meaningful is the work.’

This makes a lot of sense. As a psychotherapist, I have observed that people don’t benefit just by improving their moods. Today’s psychiatry is obsessed with elevating people’s moods—as if nothing else mattered. Other factors, such as motivation, values and meaning are often ignored. As a result, I frequently encounter people whose moods have been altered by psychiatric drugs, but who still don’t think of themselves as happy. A woman will say, for example, ‘I’m on Paxil and it’s helping. It’s not that things have changed, really. It’s more that I just don’t care as much about things that are bad—or at least things that I saw as bad before.’ I will then ask ‘Are you happy?’ The answer will almost always be, ‘No, not really.’ The reason, quite clearly (and as Dr. Seligman’s research has found), is that man does not live by the drug-induced lifting of moods alone.

What makes a person engaged in what he or she does? Let’s take the example of raising children. A recent study of 909 women found that the great majority rated taking care of their children quite low (enjoyment-wise) on their lists of activities—higher than doing housework, but lower than most other things including cooking, watching TV, or talking on the phone. If this study is a good indication of how a lot of parents view the raising of their kids (and I suspect that it is), then what’s going on here?

Seligman’s framework provides the most likely answer: Many people have children because it’s ‘the thing to do.’ It’s viewed as a duty owed to God, to society, or ‘just because.’ It’s simply what one does. In cases where parenthood is not perceived as something special, or chosen, those parents won’t typically treat the raising of a child as they would their career or a serious hobby. Instead, it’s something that they do with some resentment, or as something they expect to happen automatically. When it doesn’t work out that way, they become frustrated over what they have done with their lives, and then guilty over the perceived ‘selfishness’ inherent in such a feeling. Not all parents will take it out on their children, but kids can often sense the unhappiness and will usually take it personally.

On the other hand, I have observed that parents who believe that raising a child is not automatic—that one must decide upon a series of principles and strategies to guide them—derive much more satisfaction from being a parent. Why? Because people have a better mood about things in which they are engaged and in which they see meaning and purpose. Engagement, meaning and purpose presuppose that a person does something as a choice. This ‘default’ approach to parenting does not easily leave room for either engagement or meaning.

Engagement refers to a sense of challenge. If you expect something to happen more or less routinely (maybe because you’ve never given the subject much thought), then it’s impossible to feel engaged in it. You’re too busy being resentful to feel the benefits that come from tackling a difficult, but potentially rewarding, activity.

Most people think of ‘meaning’ as something mystical and/or selfless. Rarely is meaning connected to the self or worldly values, except, for example, in the rare cases of natural disasters when one can attempt to help. If it brings meaning to help people in a crisis or disaster, that might be fine, but we can’t ignore the day-to-day need to help your child grow up to be wise and mature. It seems like few things could be more meaningful than that. My experience has shown that the parents who are most happy are the ones who look at childrearing as a challenge and an opportunity. They come to parenthood with a sense of choice. The resentment is cleared, and the road is paved for a greater sense of engagement and purpose.

These findings don’t just apply to our example of childrearing. They suggest some real, practical, everyday advice: If you’re not happy, focus lesson your mood. Mood is just a symptom. Instead, focus on whether your current daily activities bring challenge and purpose to your life. It sometimes helps to keep a detailed journal for a period of weeks to identify what you’re actually doing and how you’re feeling about it. If your findings show a lack of meaning or purpose, don’t rush to psychiatric medication or some other ‘magic potion’ to suddenly make yourself ‘feel good.’ Instead, choose activities that are productive and meaningful to you. Good feelings and a positive mood will most surely follow.