Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness,” asserts that happiness has three components: mood, meaning, and how engaged people 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 deciding on 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 sense. I’ve observed over the years that people don’t benefit just by improving their moods. Today’s psychiatry is obsessed with elevating people’s moods while other factors such as motivation, values and meaning are largely ignored. I frequently encounter people whose attitudes have been altered by psychiatric drugs, but who still don’t think of themselves as happy. For example, a woman said to me, “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 I saw as bad.” I asked her, “Are you happy?” The answer was as I expected: “No, not really.” A person cannot live a satisfying life by drug-induced mood enhancement alone.
What makes a person engaged in what he or she does? Let’s take the example of raising children. A study of over 900 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 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 my experience suggests 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 their parents, to society, or just because. 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’ve 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 sense the unhappiness and can take it personally. This approach to parenting doesn’t leave much room for engagement.
On the other hand, I have observed that parents who believe that raising a child is not automatic — that one must decide upon principles and strategies to guide them — derive more satisfaction from being a parent. Why? Because people have a better attitude about things in which they see meaning and purpose.
Engagement, meaning and purpose all presuppose that a person does something by choice. Engagement refers to a sense of challenge. If you expect something to happen more or less routinely, then it’s impossible to feel engaged in it. Most people think of meaning as something mystical, except perhaps in rare cases of natural disasters where it brings meaning to help people in crisis. That’s fine, but we can’t ignore the day-to-day need to help your child grow up to be wise and mature. My experience has shown that the parents who are the most happy are the ones who look at child rearing as a choice and a challenge. There’s no resentment; rather there’s a sense of purpose.
These findings don’t just apply to parenthood. If you’re not happy in general, don’t focus so much on your mood. Mood is just a symptom. Instead, focus on whether your activities bring purpose to your life. If you’re not sure, it sometimes helps to keep a journal for a few weeks to identify how you’re feeling about what you’re doing. If your findings show a lack of meaning, don’t rush to psychiatric medication to make yourself “feel good.” Instead, choose activities that are productive for you. The reward for your effort will most surely be good feelings, a positive mood, and yes, happiness.
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