When I type ‘Happiness books’ into Amazon.com, over 60,000 results appear.
Happiness is clearly a popular topic. However, when I hear people say to me in therapy that they “just want to be happy”, I find it hard to write this down as a goal for them to achieve in therapy.
The problem with striving for happiness is that it is simply one of many emotions. Sometimes we can feel happiness or joy, and other times we can feel sad, angry, jealous, disgusted, guilty, surprised, anxious, or many other things. Not only is it okay if we feel these things at times, but it is normal and healthy.
To say that we only want to feel happy is unrealistic and unhealthy. The movie ‘Inside Out’ taught this message that it is essential to allow ourselves to feel whatever we do at the moment, whether it is sadness, fear, disgust or anger. To live our lives to the fullest, we need to make room for our emotions instead of changing them or pushing them away.
So if feeling happy all the time is not the healthiest goal to aim at, what is?
Life satisfaction (Diener, Emmons, Larsen & Griffen, 1985) has been widely measured worldwide. People from different cities and countries have even had their life satisfaction scores compared to each other.
To determine your life satisfaction, simply ask yourself how satisfied you are with your life currently from 0 to 10, where 10 is the best life you could imagine, and 0 is the worst.
Finland has the highest life satisfaction in the latest World Happiness Report findings. But how do we know if one person’s 8 out of 10 is the same as someone’s from another city or country? For example, both Uzbekistan and Somalia have cities that are the two most hopeful in the world regarding their expected life satisfaction in the future. However, neither country has any cities in the top 20 for their current life satisfaction.
Is it better to be satisfied now but expect that things will worsen in the future, or not be fully satisfied now, but hope that things will continue to improve?
High positive affect and low negative affect?
The positive and negative affect scale (PANAS; Watson, Clark & Tellegen, 1988) has also been widely used to assess how strongly people tend to experience positive and negative emotions. Including ten positive and ten negative emotions represents what people feel more than just focusing on happiness, but it can still be hard to determine the ideal.
Asuncion in Paraguay has the highest levels of positive emotion, and Taipei in Taiwan has the lowest negative emotions. Still, neither country has a city in the top ten globally for both.
‘Inside Out’ and I believe it is better to fully experience all emotions rather than not experience feelings at all. But it may be different depending on the culture that you live in. Should negative emotions even be considered “negative” if all feelings have a purpose or function?
Ryff’s (1989) model of psychological well-being proposed additional aspects of life as crucial to well-being rather than just emotions or life satisfaction. She included self-acceptance, positive relations, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. Now, these seem like good things to measure if you want to see if someone is psychologically healthy.
Seligman also formulated his PERMA model of well-being. He said that we needed five main things in our lives to thrive or flourish. He detailed these five things in his 2012 book ‘Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being’. They were p = positive emotions, e = engagement, r = (positive) relationships, m = meaning, and a = achievement.
Ryan and Deci (2000) came up with self-determination theory (SDT) over twenty years ago. The researchers derived three core needs that they said each human must-have for optimal functioning. They are needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy. Competence covers environmental mastery and personal growth from Ryff’s model and achievement from Seligman’s, and autonomy is in Ryff’s model too. Relatedness and positive relations with others and positive relationships are all similar. However, SDT doesn’t adequately account for self-acceptance, positive emotions, engagement, purpose in life and meaning.
Kashdan and colleagues (2009; 2017) defined curiosity as “the recognition, pursuit and intense desire to explore novel, challenging and uncertain events“. There are five dimensions of curiosity, including joyous exploration, deprivation sensitivity, stress tolerance, social curiosity and thrill-seeking.
These aspects definitely consider positive emotions, engagement and achievement from Seligman’s well-being model, but less so positive relationships and meaning. Unless social curiosity leads to positive relationships and meaning can be found in trying new things and being curious about everything you encounter?
A Good Life?
The Good Lives Model is a strengths-based approach to rehabilitating offenders. Ward and colleagues (2004) first proposed nine classes of primary goods, which have since been extended to 11 because of further research by Purvis (2010).
The 11 classes of primary goods are life, knowledge, excellence in play, work, agency, inner peace, relatedness, community, spirituality, pleasure, and creativity. If people do not have much of a primary good in their life, approach goals are set to help them achieve more of this good. It can then reduce the person’s risk of reoffending or committing another crime.
Maslow put self-actualisation at the top of his hierarchy of needs. But, according to Scott Barry Kaufman in his excellent book, ‘Transcend: The new science of self-actualisation’, Maslow never intended his hierarchy to be a pyramid of needs, as most people think of when they hear Maslow’s name.
Maslow thought human maturation was an ongoing growth process towards the transcendent experience of being “fully human“. You don’t tick off an area and never think about it again. Instead, over time, you become less concerned with the security needs of safety, connection and self-esteem and more interested in growing and exploring, loving and finding purpose.
The more self-actualised one becomes, the more they understand themselves and their identity. People who have become self-actualised can utilise who they are and their strengths to best help others and the world.
Kaufman has since developed the characteristics of self-actualisation scale (CSAS). In it, there are ten elements of self-actualisation that are assessed. To see how self-actualised you are in each area, say whether you strongly disagree with each statement (1 point), disagree (2 points), are neutral (3 points), agree (4 points), or strongly agree (5 points). Then add up your total for each element, or complete the test here.
“I feel a great responsibility and duty to accomplish a particular mission in life.”
“I have a purpose in life that will help the good of humankind.”
“I feel as though I have some important task to fulfil in this lifetime.”
“I feel a deep sense of identification with all human beings.”
“I feel a great deal of sympathy and affection for all human beings.”
“I have a genuine desire to help the human race.”
“I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.”
“I am relatively stable in the face of hard knocks, blows, deprivations, and frustrations.”
“I am often undisturbed and unruffled by things that seem to bother most people.”
4. Continued freshness of appreciation
“I can appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.”
“I often feel gratitude for the good in my life no matter how many times I encounter it.”
“A sunset looks just as beautiful every time I see one.”
5. Peak experiences
“I often have experiences in which I feel new horizons and possibilities opening up for myself and others.”
“I often have experiences in which I feel one with all people and things on this planet.”
“I often have experiences in which I feel a profound transcendence of my selfish concerns.”
6. Creative spirit
“I bring a generally creative attitude to all of my work.”
“I have a generally creative spirit that touches everything I do.”
“I am often in touch with my childlike spontaneity.”
“I can maintain my dignity and integrity even in environments and situations that are undignified.”
“I can stay true to my core values even in environments that challenge them.”
“I take responsibility for my actions.”
8. Good moral intuition
“I have a strong sense of right and wrong in my daily life.”
“I trust my moral decisions without having to deliberate too much about them.”
“I can tell deep down right away when I’ve done something wrong.”
“I accept all sides of myself, including my shortcomings.”
“I accept all of my quirks and desires without shame or apology.”
“I have unconditional acceptance of people and their unique quirks and desires.”
10. Truth-seeking or efficient perception of reality
“I try to get as close as I can to the reality of the world.”
“I am always trying to get at the real truth about people and nature.”
“I often have a clear perception of reality.”
Once you have scored up the totals for all of your elements, you can see which ones are strengths or weaknesses for you. For example, authenticity was my top score, with peak experiences being my lowest.
Self-actualisation is not precisely the same as psychological well-being or curiosity, but it seems to include elements from both.
Being more curious, psychologically healthy or having optimal psychological well-being are all worthwhile goals in therapy. They are also better to aim for than wanting to “just feel happy”.
Striving for self-actualisation is also another worthy target to aim for in therapy.
Self-actualisation is associated with emotional stability, goal attainment, constructive thinking, authenticity, and meaning in life. It can reduce disruptive impulsivity. Self-actualisation can also increase life satisfaction, curiosity, positive relationships, personal growth, and environmental mastery. Higher self-actualisation scores can also improve work performance, work satisfaction, skill development, creativity and humour ability. Lastly, it can increase one’s feelings of connectedness with the world.
Interestingly, self-actualisation is not correlated with age, education, ethnicity, gender, childhood income or school performance. So while many variables, including one’s environment, can impact a person, it does not look like it has to stop them from becoming more self-actualised.
Exactly how to reach self-actualisation isn’t fully known, but practising Mindfulness Meditation or Loving-Kindness Meditation daily could help. You could write a gratitude letter to thank someone you really care about. Or write down three things that either went well or you appreciated or felt grateful for each day. Or try to look for opportunities to help others, volunteer your skills or time, be curious about others or the world, or engage in a random act of kindness.
Different fields, including mindfulness and positive psychology, are looking into ways to help build psychological health and optimal well-being. Many of these strategies and practices are also likely to help people become more self-actualised.
Now that there is a modern instrument for measuring self-actualisation and its ten components, it will be possible to also create interventions that directly aim to improve these areas over time.
Dr Damon Ashworth