“Happiness is not a goal…it’s the byproduct of a life well lived.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
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Eleanor Roosevelt once suggested that “Happiness is not a goal…it’s the byproduct of a life well lived.” Accepting this axiom as a functional truth, the question becomes, how do we live well?
The Positive Psychology movement seeks to answer this question, though it is a relatively new field of study. Up until recently, the focus of psychology has been to study what is wrong with people—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that get people into trouble.
That is, however, until in 1998 when the president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, called for the study of what enables humans to live life fully at our best, on what promotes joy, happiness, meaning, and fulfillment—factors that can help make life worth living.
A sloppy criticism of this movement is the suggestion that it may be a call to “sweep” problems under the proverbial rug in favor of only focusing on the good, rather than on the bad and the ugly. This is sloppy criticism because, as Dr. Bruce W. Smith points out, Positive Psychology isn’t about avoiding or denying the dark side; rather, it’s about bringing the power of science to find joy and happiness in the midst of (and perhaps even in spite of) the dark side.
In other words, psychology already knows a lot about what’s wrong with people, now the study has turned to what we can do right to promote positivity, defined here as being well by living well—living in social harmony with meaning and fulfillment.
The Three Pillars of Positivity
In my own study of the research that has come out of this movement, I’ve categorized the findings under three core competencies: The Three Pillars Positivity. This name has been chosen because these categories work together to support the structure of living-being and being well. Each pillar contains a series of essential element principles and practices, as supported by Positive Psychology research. The information in this article outlines the research that informs the ongoing honing of this model of positivity.
A primary motivator for distilling the research into concise categories is the simplicity and memorability of fewer categories: It’s not enough to have accurate information—to initiate and manage positive change we also have to be able to access and use the information. By making the research accessible (digestible, memorable, and manageable), it brings the research to life—out of the reports, scientific journals, and books and into the lives of people who can actually use and benefit from the material.
Carol Ryff: Dimensions of Well-Being
Ten years before the birth of the Positive Psychology movement, the Dr. Carol Ryff outlined six components of well-being in an article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Based on the works of researchers like Carl Jung, Gordon Allport, Erik Erickson, and Carl Rogers, she created an assessment of well-being using these six dimensions:
1. Self-Acceptance: Possess a positive attitude toward the self; acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of self, including good and bad qualities; feels positive about past life.
2. Positive Relations with Others: Has warm satisfying, trusting relationships with others; is concerned about the welfare of others; capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understands give and take of human relationships.
3. Autonomy: Self-determining and independent; able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways; regulates behavior from within; evaluates self by personal standards.
4. Environmental Mastery: Has a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment; controls complex array of external activities; makes effective use of surrounding opportunities; able to choose and create contexts suitable to personal needs and values.
5. Purpose in Life: Has goals in life and a sense of directedness; feels there is meaning to present and past life; holds belief that give life purpose; has aims and objectives for living.
6. Personal Growth: Has a feeling of continual development; sees self as growing and expanding; is open to new experiences; has sense of realizing one’s potential; sees improvement in self and behavior over time; is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.
Connection with The Three Pillars of Positivity. These “dimensions of well-being” have been categorized into The Three Pillars of Positivity in the following manner. You’ll notice that the dimensions of Autonomy, Environmental Mastery, and Personal Growth have overlaps within more than one pillar, highlighting the value of categorizing and discussing them within the separate contexts:
Martin Seligman: Elements of Well-Being (PERMA)
In 2002, Dr. Seligman published a book outlining five elements that contribute to well-being, using the acronym PERMA:
Connection with The Three Pillars of Positivity. These “elements of well-being” have been categorized into The Three Pillars of Positivity in the following manner. You’ll notice that Accomplishment is listed under both the Mindset and Purpose pillars. While it’s mostly related to Purpose, there is value to discussing how a sense of Accomplishment can contribute to Mindset:
Christopher Peterson & Martin Seligman: Character Strengths and Virtues
In 2004, Dr. Christopher Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman published a comprehensive categorization of character strength and virtues in what can perhaps be best thought of as a handbook for well-being. In this volume they use six categories of strengths and virtues:
Connection with The Three Pillars of Positivity. These “character strengths and virtues” have been categorized into The Three Pillars of Positivity in the following manner. Again, you will find some overlap in this compartmentalization due to the value of discussing these strengths within separate contexts:
The purpose of this article has been to suggest a model of positivity that is equally accurate, accessible, and actionable. By offering three essential element competencies—Mindset, Purpose, and Relationships—that point to a deep tradition of research, it is hoped that the findings become more approachable for the average person, more digestible, more meaningful, and therefore more readily applied to their everyday lives.
It’s important to note that any model of positivity, well-being, happiness, and joy is just that: only a model. There is no definitive formula—and everything we have now is merely a functional working model that can help us move closer to refining our understanding of what it means to live well and be well. After all, as Mrs. Roosevelt reminds us: “Happiness is not a goal…it’s the byproduct of a life well lived.” As inspiring and motivating as this statement may be, it also begs a lot of questions, leaving room for a world of subjective experiences.
As we continue to discover what it means to live well and apply these findings to our personal and professional lives, it’s important to keep an open mind—allowing ourselves to be wrong in our assumptions, amazed at new discoveries, and humbled by deeper understandings. For insights into my own research and application of this material, you can check out my blog and vlog:
Looking through the archives on these webpages, you’ll see how my own understanding of this research has evolved over time—and you are encouraged to similarly look back on your own beliefs to challenge yourself to learn and grow from them in the spirit of discovery. Enjoy!
Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is an educator, facilitator, and coach for Hashtag Positivity, helping leaders and their influencers experience joy. If you’re interested in being well by living well, schedule a strategy session with him to discuss your challenges, goals, and obstacles.
Jonas Cain is an educator, facilitator, and coach, working to engage, empower, and encourage leaders and the people they serve to experience joy.