Happiness: The Goal We Rarely Talk About

The Idea in 100 Words (or less).

People are motivated to initiate change when they face problems. Still, what they seek are happiness and fulfillment.

Happiness has benefits in all life areas. It is a resource and a positive capacity that fuels productive behaviors.

Happy people deploy happiness habits, tending to their thinking, relationships, and physical wellbeing.

Happiness is fleeting. Still, its impact lasts beyond the moment. Furthermore, attending mindfully to positive states builds resilience, optimism, and vitality, all psychological capital that serves effective functioning and success.


Happiness: The Goal We Rarely Talk About

{Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007. Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients.}

Take a moment and ask yourself, “Am I happy?” Take the time to consider your answer. Shortly, you will come up with an answer, weighing and summing up the thousands of distinct information pieces and doing the mental arithmetic on  short notice. Clients know whether or not they are generally happy and satisfied with their lives, and they can be extremely articulate about the life areas going well and the things going wrong.

Happiness in Coaching

A client rarely seeks coaching to become happier. Yet, if you listen carefully to client complaints, the unspoken happiness goal reveals itself. The problems people face might motivate them to seek help and begin thinking about change. They are looking for a resolution to their current problems to experience satisfaction and peace. Whether or not clients explicitly identify happiness as their goal, they seek to be more emotionally, spiritually and psychologically fulfilled. Even goals to increase influence or earn more are stepping stones to a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment. Our coaching is implicitly, if not explicitly, in service of client happiness.

Consider how you might discuss happiness with your clients. What language might you use to talk about happiness with an executive or in an organizational setting? How might you introduce the concept of happiness to a client wanting to focus on work or relationship concerns? How might happiness be relevant to these issues? Consider making a list of specific happiness benefits your clients might value.

Moods are closely tied to optimism, motivation, and perseverance. Therefore, positivity is a vital resource that helps clients reach their goals.

A career that aligns with one’s interests, values, and strengths increases intrinsic motivation and happiness, provides purpose and meaning, and buffers the effects of workplace stressors.

The word happiness is a vague buzzword. Talking about happiness with corporate clients or executives might benefit from wording backed by evidence and research findings, tying concepts with workplace outcomes. For example, positive psychological capacities, such as hope and efficacy, are powerful predictors of success. Happiness is not idle emotional leisure; it is decidedly beneficial. Happy people live longer, stay married longer, make more money, receive better evaluations from work supervisors and customers, take fewer sick days, stay loyal to their employers longer, are more altruistic, and are more creative. They exceed their less happy counterparts on measures of organizational citizenship behaviors.

Positive psychology techniques such as building on employee strengths, focusing on the positive, and promoting happiness on the job are more effective than dwelling on the negative and remediating weaknesses.

Very Happy People

What do the very happy folks do differently from the rest of us? What are the habits of highly happy people? What makes happy people winners? Happy people have better health habits, effectively tend to their relationships, and use healthy thinking styles.

The “nun study”  found that nuns with a high count of positive self-descriptors in their short autobiographical statements written decades earlier as they entered a cloistered convent showed greater survival rates than their more negative counterparts. Since the nuns had very similar lifestyles and roughly the same drinking, smoking, exercising, and eating habits, the study is close to a controlled experiment showing the health benefits of happiness.

Another study found that the single quality shared by the happiest people was an abundance of rewarding social ties.

Another research showed that happy people are less prone to self-reflection (rumination), less likely to engage in negative comparisons with peers (e.g., feeling bad about themselves if a friend succeeds), and were more likely to construe events positively (i.e., they were more likely to minimize the impact of daily hassles and savor the pleasures of successes). Many of these cognitive habits can be learned.

So, then, tend to these three happiness habits: employ positive thinking habits to maintain a sense of wellbeing, tend to your physical health, and tend to your relationships with care.

Happiness Research

Happiness data collected and analyzed by Veenhoven suggests that countries with high-quality educational systems, good infrastructure, high literacy, equality between sexes, bountiful job prospects, and modern health care produce happier citizens showing the effects of circumstances on wellbeing.

Ryff’s psychological wellbeing theory examines basic existential needs and challenges everyone faces while striving for self-determination. According to Ryff, people have fundamental needs they must attend to and meet for psychological flourishing. People are happiest when they feel connected, autonomous, and capable. Ryff developed assessments to measure mastery, autonomy, relatedness, self-acceptance, and growth.

Kahneman has measured “objective happiness” through mood surveys and moment-to-moment feeling measures of research participants at random but frequent intervals over the day. People do mental accounting in unexpected ways, overlooking duration when recalling how much they enjoyed an event or activity, tending to look at the peak and the end, the best (or worst) moment, and the most recent moment when making their evaluations. Recalling events, while not necessarily accurate, is an important subjective aspect of happiness.

Recent brain research has revealed the link between behavioral activation and the experience of pleasant emotions, linking behaviors of approaching, exploring, and discovering to feeling happy.

The Word “Happiness”

Happiness is the experience of frequent, mildly pleasant emotions, the relative absence of unpleasant feelings, and general satisfaction with one’s life.

Happiness, defined as subjective wellbeing by Diener, contains an affective (feeling) component and cognitive (satisfaction) component and is best thought of as the total amount of pleasant emotions people feel, such as joy and affection, plus their cognitive evaluation of how satisfied they are with their life as a whole, or with specific aspects of their life such as their marriage, job, and commute.

Happiness feels pleasant, is transient, and motivates us. It can be experienced as joy, contentment, cheerfulness, vitality, or exuberance. Despite cultural and individual differences in values and norms, we all share the same basic physiology and basic emotional systems leading to a worldwide shared understanding, recognition, and basic experience of happiness. Happiness is not incredibly intense and ecstatic but is, more often, mildly pleasant.

Pleasant emotions go together more than negative ones and are less specific in their use. Unpleasant feelings serve a specific purpose, signal important information about our environment, and suggest specific courses of action. Anger, fear, and sadness are important emotions that help us navigate life. The permission to feel negative moods and the ability to see their value can liberate clients.

Subjective Wellbeing

Based on the subjective wellbeing (SWB) definition, a happy person is somewhat satisfied with life, feels a preponderance of pleasant emotions, and only occasionally, appropriate guilt, sadness, anger, and fear. This happy person would likely enjoy her work, have meaningful friendships or romantic relationships, and be reasonably healthy. She would sometimes feel “down,” experience the disappointment and anxiety normal to life or have occasional complaints. Still, these feelings would comprise an emotional minority. Moreover, a happy person would likely feel mildly pleasant most of the time rather than intensely upbeat. When happiness is viewed this way, it describes most of us: we feel more positives than negatives in our lives and are generally satisfied with many life areas.

SWB is constituted of processes, life conditions, and personal choices.

Processes are natural psychological mechanisms we may not even be aware of, such as thinking style, that affect our emotional wellbeing. In addition, living conditions, such as income and geographical happenstance, are largely outside personal control. Lastly, personal choices, such as goals, emotional reactions, and the events we choose to pay attention to, also affect happiness and are well within our ability to choose and control.

Much of our happiness has to do with our intentional activities, the social and physical circumstances of our lives, and the way we make meaning out of the world in which we live. Although there is a strong genetic component to happiness, having meaning in life and good social relationships also contribute to our subjective wellbeing.

Happiness is both a goal and a fundamental resource to your health, psychological wellbeing, and social functioning. Happiness is helpful and possible to attain. Emotions and happiness are some of the most important and overlooked personal resources. A coach can  introduce clients to these concepts in a language they will accept and understand, pointing out the aspects of their lives over which they have personal control and which will promote wellbeing.

Consider the types of coaching situations to which happiness research might apply. For example, how could the “happiness as a resource” theory be applied to the problem of client “stuck-ness?” How might setting realistic expectations for “what happiness is” be used with executives working in a corporate setting? How might the information on adaptation be applied to clients facing a difficult decision or transition?

Happiness Processes

Most people are mildly happy most of the time.

Humans are built to pay attention to potentially harmful or threatening events. Because of this, people easily recall past failures or world events that have a decidedly negative spin and overlook the many instances of positivity in their lives. Folks adjust to and overcome personal difficulties with inspiring levels of resilience.

Clients have many examples of happiness in their lives. Working with them to illustrate these is an important educational tool, giving them the language and vocabulary to describe their experiences and tools to identify them. In addition, creating awareness of a client’s many successes, past and present, in various life domains sparks growth and excitement by changing stereotypes and expectations about happiness.

Happy people tend to have more energy, health, and motivation. Depression, on the other hand, has a way of sapping energy and leaving people with a pessimistic, bleak view of their world. Societies rely on happy people to function effectively and flourish. Happy people are more likely to be curious, explore, take risks, and seek new relationships.

Humans have long been explorers and hunters and engaged in activities that require an optimistic outlook.

In a laboratory study, people generally react to neutral photographs as if they were positive. This “positivity offset” suggests that in the absence of an identifiable danger, people tend to be active, approach oriented, and willing to explore their surroundings.

Emotions serve an evolutionary function, and the positivity offset helps people prosper. Fear, anger, sadness, and worry limit our possible choices of actions, and positive emotions expand them. For example, fear limits our possible responses to fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory states that feelings of love, joy, pride, and enthusiasm help people develop their personal and social resources. Folks in a good mood are more likely to seek out others, be more creative, or be motivated to hone skills. It doesn’t matter which good mood we are talking about; pride, enthusiasm, joy, affection, and happiness all prod folks into playing, connecting, exploring, and working.

Mild daily positive feelings are beneficial in many ways. Happy people are more creative, helpful, friendly, and energetic than unhappy people. Happiness is a tremendous resource for achieving other goals and a fantastic resource in coaching sessions. Coaches, when brainstorming with a client, will intentionally suggest outrageous ideas to introduce humor, thereby setting the stage for creativity.

Happiness is much more a process than a destination. The satisfaction that comes from achieving goals are cognitive and emotional rewards we can deploy as a resource to work toward other, new goals.

What might be the optimal level of happiness? Is there an upper limit to the happiness amount people are capable of feeling or boundaries on how long we can maintain a positive attitude? Is happiness like a balloon that continues to swell as it is inflated? Is there a point at which it pops?

Humans have a natural adaptive mechanism that prevents this from happening. We regulate our emotions by adapting to our “baseline” feelings. Most individuals are in the mildly positive range in their emotional set-point, somewhere at the level of 6, 7, or 8 on a 10-point scale. After natural emotional highs and lows that come with success and failure, we tend to adapt back to a mildly pleasant, “resting emotional state” rather quickly.

Adaptation means there is room for emotions to work their magic. Emotions are signals that tell us how things are going. Engagement at work, for example, lets us know that our job is challenging and satisfying. Adaptation clears the room for new successes and failures. The emotional intensity of yesterday’s wonderful experience must be swept away to make room for the potential joys of today’s experience. Adaptation also suggests that complacency might not be a problem. Being extremely satisfied will not leave you or your clients unmotivated because there is always room to grow.

Knowledge of adaptation can help us set realistic emotional expectations for ourselves. We are simply incapable of experiencing euphoric highs over long periods. Clinging to fleeting excitements will lead to a painful letdown. Understanding that happiness and satisfaction are frequent and mild rather than permanent and intense helps you and your clients appreciate the happiness you already experience and avoid the trap of looking for phantasy-style perfection. Learning that an 8 on a 10-point happiness scale is a perfect score lets clients off the emotional hook freeing them up to focus on other goals.

Adaptation also buffers us against unfortunate lows. People recover surprisingly well. Understanding and having faith in your ability to adapt, even to difficult or adverse circumstances, help you tolerate risk, face uncertainty, or regain the optimism necessary for effective functioning.

Another happiness process is the “happiness timeline.” Most people would consider happiness as being felt in the moment. It is a thermometer to gauge how well our lives are going in the present. On the other hand, fulfillment is what people typically think of when they consider lasting feelings of wellbeing. This feeling extends beyond the present moment. How happy we remember events is vitally important to our decisions, regardless of whether that memory is true. In a study with college students, expectations about how fun and pleasant spring break would be (students were asked to predict how happy they would be on their upcoming spring break) influenced how they remembered it (by the recall of how happy they were over the spring break a couple of weeks after their return to campus); even more so than the actual feeling they experienced while on vacation (sampled and collected through mood data over the vacation week). {Expectations before an event become part of the memory of the event and influence how the event is remembered. Expectations influence current happiness and influence remembered happiness. Expectations also influence remembered happiness. And remembered happiness influences expectations for the next cycle.}

When clients struggle to decide for the future, asking them to predict their emotions in that future situation and remember their feelings from similar situations in the past may prove helpful.

Consider how you use happiness assessments in your practice. Will you include them in your welcome packet? Would you prefer that your clients fill out the surveys on their own time, or would you devote time during the session to this work?