At some point in our lives, we will come to ask ourselves “what does living the ‘good life’ means for me?” For me, this question comes at a young age – late adolescence, leading me to seek knowledge and wisdom from scientific and spiritual sources. For others, it can come at a life crisis, when latent dissatisfaction boils up to an unbearable level. For simplicity, many people would answer “to be happy”. Without deeper considerations, some people do take it literally – the pursuit of pleasure. The social construct of happiness gives people the expectation to constantly chase after happiness, and fear from negative feelings, and negatives are bad – a myth we should all probably bust after watching Inside Out. But still, why chase after the positives?

“I believe a good emotional system has similar patterns, having the traits of emotional adaptability and stability.”

Research. The pursuit of pleasure can actually be a negative experience. A study, published in American Psychology Journal Emotions, found associations between the high variability of positive feelings throughout a normal week and worse psychological health, including lower well-being and life satisfaction and greater depression and anxiety. Albeit having positive feelings are generally linked to positive psychological outcomes, when they start fluctuating drastically, it becomes a negative experience. This association can be interpreted in a few ways: (1) high positive emotional variability causes emotional turbulence, and (2) people who are poor emotional regulators tend to fluctuate more than good regulators. The constant pursuit of pleasure may be leading to this fluctuation. If constantly chasing after positive emotions do not guarantee us long-term “happiness”, then what does?

In my PhD research, I work with emotions to subtler levels. I was looking at one of my measures one day on happiness and was astounded. The sub-facets of happiness are feeling “happy”, “content”, “fulfilled” and “satisfied”. The previous research tested a huge normative population with pool of words associated with being happy, and these 4 words hung together to measure happiness. I was wondering what about other emotions like “elation”, “delight”, “joy”, “glee” – words that are of greater positive valence. The former 4 words suggest to me a rather neutral state of having enough and living a meaningful and purposeful life, without much infusion of the mainstream happiness. I start to think that the public associate the former more neutral states with long-term happiness, but subconsciously they want that jolt of positivity that has possibly no link to the idea of happiness captured in this research.

Like a  good heart. The idea of having an undercurrent of life contentment, fulfilment and satisfaction, with little fluctuation in positive affect makes me think of a heart. A good heart is one that is adaptable and has a low heartrate variability, which means when stimulated, the heartrate does not deviate too much from baseline, and can return to baseline quickly. I believe a good emotional system has similar patterns, having the traits of emotional adaptability and stability.

How we got it all wrong? The general public seems to get the idea of happiness wrong. My experience is that people think being happy as having a big night out, throwing party balloons and laughing over drinks. It seems like a staple for weekends, and if without, they feel disappointed. I think people should start thinking what makes them happy in terms of their life satisfaction, contentment and fulfilment, and taking a more stable and centred approach to encounter life experiences.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

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