September 11, 2016

Should we make happiness the focus of our lives?

How important should we consider being happy? Should it be a general goal in our life to be happy? Or should it perhaps even be the ultimate goal we should have as a person? Must we see happiness as the main goal in many or all domains of our life, such as work and education? While happiness as a goal sounds quite important, perhaps we should not conclude too quickly that our life resolves or should revolve around happiness only. What happiness precisely is, how we achieve it, and to what extent we should focus on it, may harder to answer that you might think.

Should happiness be viewed as our ultimate goal?

Since ancient times people have thought about what happiness is and how people can achieve it. Aristotle viewed is as a goal in itself and even as what should be the ultimate goal of people. The idea that happiness should be one of the most important goals of people sank into the background a bit in the Middle Ages but made a comeback in the Age of Enlightenment. The American Declaration of Independence mentions the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right of American citizens.

The current interest in happiness

Nowadays, the importance of happiness is stressed more and more. One example of how this is done is through international statistics on national differences in happiness (see for example the World Happiness Report). Scandinavian and West-European countries tend to score highest in these rankings while some African countries tend to score lowest.  In psychology, interest in happiness has also increased. One school in psychology, positive psychology, emphasizes the importance of happiness a lot and conducts much research into the causes and effects of happiness.

One example: positive education

Martin Seligman (photo), co-founder of positive psychology, is currently advocating something called positive education. This video explains what is meant by that. A number of people associated with positive education give their definition of it. The descriptions they give of positive education vary a lot from each other. The video has a feel-good tone but its content may create more confusion than clarification. So let's focus on what Seligman himself says. He says that positive education is the intersection of traditional education and the building of well-being.

What is well-being?

Alright, well-being. Perhaps your first thought is that this is a straightforward concept. But alas. A recent review by Cooke et al. (2016) shows that well-being is far from a straightforward concept and that there is also very little consensus about how it can be measured. These authors categorized the definitions they found in the literature into four categories. The first is hedonic well-being which is about pleasure and happiness. Usually, it is measured in three ways: satisfaction with life, the absence of negative affect, and the presence of positive affect. The second is eudaimonic well-being which is about fulfilling one's potential. The approach of basic psychological needs by Ryan & Deci (2001) falls under this category, according to the authors. The third is quality of life. This is broad category which encompasses physical and social aspects of functioning. The fourth is about wellness, a concept which emerged from the counseling literature. This category is broad and less well-defined. Wellness is usually holistically viewed and may include things like spiritual health.

How do we measure well-being?

Cooke et al found 42 instruments in the literature which are used to measure well-being. They could connect these reasonably well to the four categories of definitions although some instruments ended up in a residual category. The authors established that the instruments varied greatly in terms of length (number of items), psychometric properties, and conceptualizations and operationalizations. According to them, there is much disagreement about what well-being is and how it should be measured.


Whether well-being should be viewed as an ultimate goal does not seem to be an easy or foregone conclusion. I have far more questions than answers about this matter. Firstly, happiness is not an unambiguous concept at all. It is not clear what it is and therefore also not clear what it is we would aiming at. Secondly, aside from what it is and how important it is, I think it is not very clear how it can be achieved. Should you directly aim at having happy experiences? Of should happiness be viewed more as an outcome or byproduct of something else we are focusing on (such as trying to lead a virtuous life, doing what you find important or interesting, etc.).

Positive education sounds well-intended but does not convince me. The hodgepodge of definition which Cooke et al (2016) found in the literature is also reflected in the video about positive education. The speakers in the video implicitly refer to very different definitions and operationalizations of well-being. I am of course not saying the opposite of what the video says. Eduction, in my view, should, of course not be an experience of great suffering if only because I think that would harm learning.

I think that we should not move too fast with positive education. Whether well-being should be one of the main goals of education at least depends on how we define well-being. If we would choose fulfillment of self-determination theory's psychological basic needs as our well-being definition, I might be on board with that idea. But some of the descriptions in the video I find much less attractive and convincing.

Eduction is primarily about learning new knowledge and skills. Which role well-being should play in education, be it as a means or a goal, is far from clear.


  1. I believe in the original Declaration of Independence it was written the pursuit of property and then changes to happiness. Interesting.Seligman certainly wants to leave a mark. He convinced the US Army, they were desperate, to go CBT, and the result have been unimpressive.The trouble with the hole happiness push that it smells like Lucas's movie THX1138 to me.

    1. Hi Mark, I don't know that movie. I'll look it up.


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