The Psychology of Happiness

Choosing to flourish

Darren Morton
The Psychology of Happiness
Photo by Alex Alvarez on Unsplash

In 1997 Dr. Martin Seligman was voted the president of the American Psychological Association and decided to invest his energies and influence into a new field of psychology. Seligman noted that traditionally, psychology had concerned itself only with the negative—devoting all its attention toward remedying dysfunctional psychological states—so he determined instead to investigate and promote what he referred to as positive psychology.

Initially, the positive psychology literature focused on happiness: What causes it? How do you achieve it? What it is good for? However, while happiness is a worthy pursuit, the field of positive psychology has noted that it takes more than just smiles and giggles to thrive in life. More recently Seligman has suggested that there is a higher ideal: to flourish.

Let’s consider five comprehensive ways to flourish.


Positive Emotion. Positive emotions are foundational to a life that flourishes. Positive emotion represents much more than just cheap thrills or pleasure, though. Trying to build your well-being and happiness on pleasure alone is problematic.

Pleasure is never permanent, and laughter is never limitless. To create a flourishing life through the pursuit of pleasure, you would need to constantly busy yourself seeking it. In fact, several studies have found that pleasure does not contribute to people’s assessment of their overall life satisfaction as much as the other factors discussed below.

Engagement. A pioneering researcher in the field of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has intensively studied an experience he refers to as “flow.” Flow is a state of heightened focus and enjoyment that occurs in such activities as art, play, and, believe it or not, even work.

Unsurprisingly, individuals who report high levels of flow that lead to engagementin their daily activities also report higher levels of life satisfaction and flourishing. Given that “engagement” is a powerful contributor to your ability to flourish, it is ideal to find employment that engages you because you spend so much of your time at work. I hope that you are engaged in your work, but if not, and circumstances prevent you from making a change, it is even more critical that you engage in regular play—things you do for sheer enjoyment, with no extrinsic reward required.

Accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment, achievement, success, or mastery helps people flourish. Sometimes accomplishment is measured through agreed standards, such as competitions or awards, or through performing at a particular level. Having a sense of accomplishment can enrich your life independent of positive emotion or engagement.

Relationships. Together feels better, and God designed us to thrive in community. Humans are relational creatures, and our deepest levels of well-being seem to be realized by loving and being loved. We seek connectedness, and that connectedness helps us to flourish.

Meaning. Having a sense of meaning is a fundamental human need. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to live a truly flourishing life without meaning. In this regard, it could be considered the most important of all the ingredients. You can live a life filled with fun times, be engaged in your daily activities, achieve noteworthy accomplishments, and have positive relationships, yet in your quieter moments wonder What’s the point of it all?

Seligman defines meaning as having a “feeling of belonging to and serving something bigger than yourself.”1 More recently Emily Esfani Smith expanded upon Seligman’s definition in her book The Power of Meaning by exploring four paths to meaning.


Pathway one is belonging, which involves being connected to others and feeling that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. As we have discussed, we are designed to exist in community, and this gives meaning to our lives. For me, holding a belief that I belong to something or Someone bigger than myself creates a strong sense of self-worth and a robust identity. You need to know that you are a person of value, too.

When my middle child—Elijah—was just a toddler, I would kiss him each evening as I tucked him into bed, and I would say, “Daddy loves you.” And each evening he would ask me, “Why?”

It became something of a game, as each evening I would give him a different reason: “Because you are so good at climbing trees” or “Because you are so clever.” It was only after a month or so that it dawned on me how inadequate my responses were, and I realized how I should reply. That evening, as I kissed him good night and said, “Daddy loves you,” he predictably came back with “Why?” Without hesitating I said, “Because you are mine. And there is nothing you can do—good or bad—to change that.”

We find this idea emphasized in Scripture in Isaiah 43:1: “But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine.’ ”

Understanding and acknowledging the love of God gives us purpose. Purpose involves contributing to and serving something bigger than yourself. It is interesting that having purpose in life is associated with living longer. In one study people with a high score for “purpose in life” were nearly 50 percent less likely to die2 from all causes.

The third pathway is transcendence, which refers to experiencing something bigger than yourself. People experience transcendence in different ways—through nature, art, music, or religious practices. Transcendence leads to moments of awe and wonder, and it reminds us that there is more to life than the ordinary.

Finally, the fourth pathway to meaning is through storytelling. Storytelling has been part of human civilization since antiquity, and storytelling features among indigenous communities. Storytelling helps us make sense of the world and our experience in it, and this is one way in which storytelling cultivates meaning. Stories shared with others can be deeply meaningful. What story are you telling? What part are you playing? Whether you are intentional about it or not, you are telling a story through the way you live your life. How do you want your story to be told? How do you want your story to end? It’s never too late to write a new chapter.

1 Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (New York: Atria Books, 2012). 

2 P. A. Boyle, L. L. Barnes, A. S. Buchman, D. A. Bennett, “Purpose in Life Is Associated With Mortality Among Community-dwelling Older Persons,” Psychosomatic Medicine 71, no 5 (June 2009): 574-579.

Darren Morton