The 3 types of happiness

With our focus on resilience, wellbeing, and positive psychology this month, we’ve shifted from looking at what causes people to feel down and held back, and instead asked the question of what causes people to thrive.

One of the important concepts in the positive psychology literature is that of happiness. Now we all know what feeling happy is like, but happiness means different things to different people, and as it turns out there are different types of happiness to consider.

In our previous post we introduced you to the psychologist Martin Seligman and his PERMA model. [1] PERMA outlined five core building blocks to resilience and lasting happiness. Well Seligman also had the idea that there are several levels, or dimensions, of happiness that impact on the type of life that we live. Three to consider are a Pleasant Life, an Engaged Life, and a Meaningful Life. [2] 


One level of happiness is a pleasant life wherein you engage in doing things that give us pleasure frequently and consistently. It can make for a happy life - imagine devoting much of your time to getting a quick hit of happiness by doing things such as eating a favourite food, watching a movie, shopping, going for a run, or gaming, all in the name of feeling good.

But even your own experience may show that while it’s great to indulge in things that make us feel good, those moments can sometimes be fleeting and there are often deeper levels of satisfaction to be had. 


One step on from a pleasant life is what Seligman calls an engaged life. An engaged life can be lived by not just doing pleasurable things, but by living in a way that cultivates your virtues and strengths. Being a person of good character, it seems, is an important part of living a more deeply fulfilling and happy life.

This type of happiness where you live a strengths-based life is more likely to bring on a state of ‘flow’ which is a key concept in the Engagement stage of the PERMA model (again, you can read more in our last post here). Specifically, there is the capacity to get completely absorbed in what you are doing to the point of getting ‘in the zone’.

Now what might activities that lead to an engaged life look like? Well, Seligman together with his colleague Christopher Peterson identified six virtues (e.g. Wisdom and knowledge, Transcendence) from which 24 strengths emerge. [3] By participating in activities that tap these strengths and virtues, you are more likely to get into a state of flow.

For instance, under the virtue of Wisdom and Knowledge one of the strengths is a Love of Learning. If this is one of your character strengths, spending hours immersed in understanding all that you can on a topic, or learning to master a new skill, may be examples of activities that fall under living an engaged life for you. We’ll cover these virtues and strengths in greater detail in our next post, but in the meantime read on to find out more about the Meaningful Life.


Finally, Seligman’s third dimension of happiness referred to one marked by purpose and meaning. That is, happiness in this respect comes from taking those virtues and strengths that make you a person of good character and using them in service of something bigger than yourself - something that gives purpose and meaning to your life.

How can we aim for a meaningful life? Take a moment to reflect first on your strengths and virtues - the best things about you. What are you good at? What are your natural talents? What are the virtues (such as wisdom or courage) that you have deliberately cultivated in yourself?

Now ask yourself this: Can you think of a cause bigger than yourself that is truly worth serving? Is it a political party? A social justice agenda? Your faith? The environment? Ironically, it is when you put this cause at the top of your priority list, even above your own happiness, that a more enduring happiness and life satisfaction can be achieved.  Developing your skills, talents and strengths, and then using these in service of bringing about a better world in the way that matters most to you, is what will lead to a life filled with meaning. 


So, as you can see, not all types of happiness is equal. Some types give us fleeing moments of pleasure, whereas others lead to a more longer-lasting, fulfilling level of happiness and satisfaction. Which type will you focus your energy on?


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[1] Seligman, Martin E.P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York, NY: Pocket Books


[3] Peterson, C., & Selighman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A classification and handbook. New York: Oxford University Press, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.