Positive Psychology #3

by Ralph Hesse


One of the major features in Positive Psychology is the study of how people attain “life satisfaction”, or a sense of wellbeing. What separates those who achieve this from those who don’t? Remarkably, situational issues such as health and wealth are not the most important factors. In a stunning study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University (1978) people who won the lottery were compared to people who suffered a catastrophic accident and were resultantly paraplegic or quadriplegic. Each group was asked after the event to compare their level of happiness from just before the event. Incredibly, those that lost their physical abilities due to an accident rated themselves somewhat happier than those who won the lottery. So why is that?


The answer lies in the two different paths that people peruse…..the pleasurable life versus the meaningful life. Positive Psychology shows that those who actively seek activities that give their lives meaning are happier and more resilient than those who seek comfort and pleasure. Simply put, relevance trumps pleasure. As an example, your body might feel very good after going to the spa, and very bad after running a marathon….but you will be happier after running the marathon. To travel by taking a cruise can seem wonderful, but you will be happier if that travel instead involved volunteering to do disaster relief overseas. So the reason that the lottery winners were less happy is because the sudden infusion of wealth led many to peruse luxuries, whereas the sudden loss of physical skills led to the pursuit of being relevant and/or important.


Of course, the field of Positive Psychology doesn’t deny that comfort and pleasure can add to life satisfaction, but these are secondary to finding a sense of meaning in your life. So, if you want to be happy, one of the best things to do is to volunteer your time to help others. Giving of yourself will elevate your emotional well being. Truly a win-win scenario!