A wizard wants to grant you happiness, but he isn't sure what happiness is. So he presents you with four magic potions. 

domeckopol / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: domeckopol / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

The Hedonism potion delivers a life full of pleasure and very little pain.

The Aristotle potion delivers a life of virtuous engagement with the world.

The Desire potion delivers a life in which you get what you want (actually: what you would want if you were fully informed about your situation).

The Blank potion delivers nothing until you explain your theory of happiness to the wizard. And then it delivers that.

Which potion would you take? The first three sound pretty great. Maybe you should just choose one, any one, and let the good times roll.

But hold on. What if the Hedonism potion gives you pleasure but makes you a lout, unloved by everyone you know? And what if the Aristotle potion gives you virtue but no love, no success, no joy? And what if the Desire potion just makes you appreciate the wisdom of Oscar Wilde: “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers”? 

With these worries in mind, you look to philosophy. Philosophers have been arguing about these issues for millennia. But they’re no closer to consensus today than when Socrates roamed the streets of Athens annoying the big shots.

So you turn to positive psychology, the psychological study of happiness. Here’s a suggestion: Take a look at what the psychology of happiness studies because it’s probably happiness. We can implement this "Take a Look" strategy in three steps.

Step 1: Positive psychology studies correlations and causal connections among:

  1. positive feelings like joy and pleasure;
  2. positive attitudes like optimism, satisfaction and hope;
  3. positive traits like extraversion and conscientiousness; and 
  4. accomplishments like academic and professional success, strong relationships, and good health

Here are a few of the many links psychologists have identified among the four basic elements of happy lives.1

  • Being cheerful in college predicts greater income 20 years later.
  • Being in a good mood makes people more creative and friendly.
  • Optimism predicts success in athletic and political contests.
  • Happy people are judged by others to be better looking, more competent, more intelligent, friendlier, and more ethical.
  • Extraverts are happier and more satisfied with their lives years later.

Consider a variation on an old yarn: Six people are in a dark room studying an elephant. They're armed with powerful but tightly focused flashlights. The tusk is thought a spear, the side a wall, the trunk a snake, the leg a tree, the ear a fan, and the tail a rope. Happiness is like the elephant. It's made up of many varied parts. To see the whole thing, you've got to step back and turn on the overhead lights. 

If we try to identify happiness with just one of the basic elements of happy lives - say, the pleasure or the success - we'd be like the person who thought the elephant was a spear. 

We might lump all the basic elements of happy lives together - the good feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments - and call that happiness. But just as elephants aren't random collections of elephant parts, happy lives aren’t random collections of happy life parts. Happy lives have a shape and a structure. When you’re happy, the good things in your life build on each other. Your good feelings, attitudes and traits work together to contribute to your successes; and those successes in turn feed back into your good feelings, attitudes and traits.

Step 2: Positive psychology studies enduring networks of positive feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments.

This idea isn’t new. It’s explicit, for example, in Barbara Fredrickson's “broaden and build” theory of positive emotion: Positive emotions broaden the mind, making more ideas and actions available to thought. A more open mind helps you acquire durable resources (like skills, wealth, and allies). And these resources can further promote positive emotions.2 Psychologists have discovered many other such cycles. Here are a few.3 

  • Optimism promotes success; success in turn promotes optimism.
  • Happier people are more successful; more successful people are happier. 
  • Curiosity leads to more knowledge; and more knowledge promotes greater curiosity.
  • Happier people do more volunteer work; and volunteer work makes people happier.
  • People with better relationship skills tend to have better relationships; and people in good relationships tend to acquire better relationship skills. 

Step 3: You have a happy life when you’re in a positive groove: you’re “stuck” in self-maintaining networks of positive feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments.4

This "groovy" theory doesn't describe what it feels like to be happy. A happy life is a process. You can identify many of its parts - the feelings, the attitudes, the traits, and some of the accomplishments. But you don't see the process. You don't see how all the parts link up, how they build on one another. This shouldn't be a surprise. If the processes that made up happy lives were open to casual inspection, psychology would be a lot easier than it is!

When you're in a positive groove, you'll feel actively engaged with people and projects you value and enjoy. This is the "groovy" theory, but described from the inside - from the perspective of the happy person.

Back to the wizard: The Take a Look strategy recommends that you choose the Blank potion and ask the wizard for a life full of enduring networks of feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments you value and enjoy.

In future posts, I’ll argue that this philosophy is appealing, and, more importantly, powerful: It’ll help you understand and manage the mechanisms of happiness.


1. Any good introduction to Positive Psychology will describe many studies tracing connections among positive feelings, attitudes, traits and objective factors (including accomplishments). References for each bullet point:

  • Diener, Ed, C. Nickerson, R. E. Lucas, and E. Sandvik. 2002. “Dispositional Affect and Job Outcomes” in Social Indicators Research 59: 229–259.
  • Isen, Alice M., Kimberly A. Daubman and Gary P. Nowicki. 1987. "Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving" in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52, 6: 1122–1131. Cunningham, Michael. 1988. “Does Happiness Mean Friendliness? Induced Mood and Heterosexual Self-Disclosure” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 14: 283–297.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. 1990. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Random House, Inc.
  • For citations, see p. 827 of Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Laura A. King, and Ed Diener. 2005. “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success” in Psychological Bulletin 131, 6: 803–855.
  • Headey, Bruce, and Alexander Wearing. 1989. “Personality, Life Events, and Subjective Well-Being: Toward a Dynamic Equilibrium Model” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, 4: 731–739.

2. Barbara Fredrickson explains her “broaden and build” theory here. See also her 1998 “What Good are Positive Emotions?” in Review of General Psychology 2: 300–319, and her 2001 “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions” in American Psychologist 56, 3: 218–226.

3. References for each bullet point:

  • Seligman, Martin E. P. 1990. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Random House, Inc.
  • Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Laura A. King, and Ed Diener. 2005. “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success” in Psychological Bulletin 131, 6: 803–855. 
  • Loewenstein, George. 1994. “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation” in Psychological Bulletin 116, 1: 75–98.
  • Thoits, Peggy A., and Lyndi N. Hewitt. 2001. “Volunteer Work and Well-Being” in Journal of Health and Social Behavior 42, 2: 115–131.
  • For “Healthy Relationship Skills —> Healthy Relationships” see citations on p. 315 of  Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press. For “Healthy Relationships —> Healthy relationship skills” see Crowell, Judith, R. Chris Fraley, and Philip R. Shaver. 1999. “Measures of Individual Differences in Adolescent and Adult Attachment.” In J. Cassidy and P.R. Shaver, eds., Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications, 434–465. New York: Guilford Press. 

4. In my book, The Good Life, I defend the "Take a Look" strategy and the “groovy” philosophy of happy lives, although I call them "the inclusive approach" and "the network theory". 

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