When new parents are asked about what their biggest wish is for their child, often times they’d say “We just want him to be happy.”

Happiness means different things to different people.  So when all a mom or dad wants is for the baby to be happy, does it mean they wish for the child to achieve the goals of his life, or have a prominent career, or be blessed with a loving marriage and family, or be an inspiration to others?  It could be all of those because happiness is all encompassing and yet it’s one of the most vague terms in human vocabulary.

From Aristotle to contemporary positive psychology, well-being or happiness has been usefully proposed to consist of at least two ingredients: hedonia and eudaimonia (Aristotle 2009; Seligman et al. 2005).  While definitions of these by philosophers and psychologists have varied, most generally agree that hedonia at least corresponds psychologically to a state of pleasure.  Eudaimonia essentially means a life experienced as valuably meaningful and as engaging*.

In other words, happiness has both a subjective and an objective (or judgemental) element.  Pleasure as an adaptive evolutionary feature is not so hard to imagine.  For example, tasty food is one of the most universal routes to pleasure, as well as an essential requirement to survival.  For me personally a hot shower at the end of a cold winter day brings pleasure.  For others, it could be listening to classic music, enjoying a cup of morning coffee, or smelling the roses.

Although it is probably undisputable that the capacity for pleasure is essential to normal well-being, self-indulgence alone doesn’t fulfill the eudaimonia requirement of happiness.  A passive but contented couch potato may be getting what he wants, and absolutely enjoying it.  But he wouldn’t be counted as doing well or leading a happy life.   But who decides whether your life is valuably meaningful or not?  Religious people are likely to tell you that only God hold the power of judgment (I have no intention of disputing that).  People also pass judgment on each other based on their own life experiences.

Dr. Seligman defines authentic happiness as something that comes from identifying and cultivating one’s most fundamental strengths and using them every day in work, love, play and parenting.  He and his colleagues identified six core virtues that are valued in almost every culture and across different religions:

–                Wisdom and knowledge
–                Courage
–                Love and humanity
–                Justice
–                Temperance
–                Spirituality and transcendence

There are several distinct routes to each of the above six virtues.  For example, one can display the virtue of justice by acts of good citizenship, fairness, loyalty and teamwork, or humane leadership.  Seligman calls these routes strengths. And there are twenty-four types of strengths.  You can go online to and take the VIA Strengths Survey.  This twenty-five minute exercise rank orders your strengths from top to bottom and compares your answers to thousands of other people.

The “pleasant life” might be had by drinking Champagne and driving a Lamborghini, but not the good life.  The good life is using your signature strength every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.

So it seems that authentic happiness has an external and internal element.  When we engage in pleasures, we are perhaps just consuming despite the delights they so reliably bring.  The temporary pleasure fades rapidly once the external stimulus disappears.  In contrast, when we are utilizing our signature strengths and becoming engaged in something meaningful (absorbed in flow), perhaps we are investing and building psychological capital for our future**. Different people enter the state of flow differently.  For one person, it could be when she is having an intimate conversation with God, for another when he is playing the guitar, and for me it is when I am immersed in a good book or writing a story that touches my heart.  All of us eventually arrive at the same place where we experience the loss of self-consciousness and the stopping of time, although through different means.  And I suspect our brain activity would look more alike than different: the same brain circuits gets activated, similar neuron firing patterns, and new synapses get forged …

There is no right or wrong way to pursue happiness although a reality check might be necessary from time to time.   Does my pursuit of happiness make me a better person? With my subjective well-being, are the important people in my life drawn to me or feel alienated by me?  Does my genuine smile brighten the world just a little? Am I enriching my life and the lives of others in any way through the use of my signature strengths?

Happiness comes in different shapes and forms because people want different things out of life.  There are seven billion people in this world, and very likely there are seven billion ways to happiness.

*Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being by Kent Berridge
** Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman