Three Paths to Happiness
The Pleasant Life
The Engaged Life
The Meaningful Life

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

Research tells us there are three basic paths to happiness. First there’s the pleasant life where we experience pleasure and fun. Second, the engaged life is where we find ourselves concentrated on a task experiencing flow where there is no sense of time. Third, the meaningful life is the experience of using our character strengths and finding purpose and a life beyond ourselves, and being connected in relationships.

A full life includes a balance of all three. Some of us experience one or two of these variations of happiness more than others. Not everyone who describes themselves as happy have a lot of pleasure in their lives, but may experience flow and have a meaningful life. We know that the life that’s heavy on the pleasant life is an empty life. A new definition of happy that includes all three paths is liberating, because we can build skills that incorporate more of each path if we become aware of a deficiency. Let’s take a closer look at the three paths.

The Pleasant Life:
Pleasure and Fun

Here we are talking about pleasure or raw feeling. Pleasure is important because it can build positive emotion in the moment. Pleasure refers to positive sensations that quickly pass. The sense organs are connected directly to positive emotion; touching, tasting, smelling, moving the body, seeing, and hearing can directly evoke pleasure. They involve little, if any, thinking, and need little or no interpretation.

Some examples of pleasurable activities are sex and chocolate, not necessarily in that order, sitting in front of a fire on a snowy evening, holding and smelling a clean baby, and listening to beautiful music. In spite of the delightful experiences pleasures bring, it’s not easy to build a life around momentary bodily pleasures. As a matter of fact, they fade very quickly due to habituation, often requiring bigger doses to deliver the same kick as originally.

Surprise and spacing are crucial to preventing habituation. If you want to enhance pleasure, both spacing pleasure out over time and having a variety of pleasurable experiences are important. It helps to know that rapidly repeating an indulgence in the same pleasure doesn’t work. Our brain notices events that are new and novel and disregards those that aren’t. It’s a neurological fact of life that adaptation or habituation result after the first novel event. That first spoonful of ice cream is more delicious than the 10th or 20th.

Pleasures fade quickly, and may even have a negative aftermath. Craving and the mechanism of addictions are associated with the negative aftermath of pleasure. This is illustrated by the negative aftereffect of drinking, a hangover, that can be relieved by taking another drink. The alternative is to let the unpleasant aftereffect dissipate over time. If you take the hangover-curing drink, the unpleasant aftereffects vanish, but that drink itself sets up the new hangover, and so on. Understanding this is crucial to knowing how to enhance pleasure in your life. How you spread pleasures out over time is important as is having a variety of pleasures to experience.

Savoring is key to enhancing pleasure. Savoring is the awareness of pleasure and the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure. It’s the deliberate attempt to make a pleasure last. Here’s an example of savoring. You receive a letter from your child or a dear friend. You wait to read it until a quiet moment, doing it slowly. If it’s sentimental, you allow yourself tears, feeling the presence of the writer.

Many of us are pleasure deprived. We need reminders to savor, to live in our bodies, to live in the moment. The sheer speed of modern life and our extreme future-mindedness can sneak up on us and rob us of pleasure in our present. Saving time (for what?) and planning for a future that often never comes, deprives us of our present as well as the experience of pleasure.

We often take shortcuts to pleasure and replace gratification with quick pleasures. We eat fast food instead of taking the time to prepare a good meal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a shortcut to pleasure. We all need a shortcut every now and then, but an over reliance on shortcuts can be a hindrance to happiness. Before you indulge in a quick pleasure, ask yourself, “What would I really like to do, and what would give me more sustained satisfaction?”

The Engaged Life:
where we experience flow

50% of the population is low on scores of pleasure and may not smile much, but can achieve flow or engagement. When we experience flow, we are engaged and absorbed in a task. Our sense of self vanishes and time seems to stop. There’s no raw feeling or emotion to flow, although when describing this state, words like pleasure, exhilaration, and even ecstasy are used. An absence of feeling or thought and stopped time defines flow. Surgeons are an example of who experiences flow at work. Athletes describe flow, children at play experience flow, chess players are in flow.

How do we know we are in flow?
• No sense of self
• Time stops
• No thought or feeling
• Concentration is key to the experience
• We have deep and effortless involvement
• A sense of control
• The task is challenging and requires skill

There are different intensities of these benchmarks. The mountain climber may experience more intense concentration than he would playing with his child, but both states are called flow. How much flow a person experiences depends on the person and on their circumstances. For example, the more freedom and challenge a person has in their job, the more opportunities there are for flow.

There are caveats to the experience of flow. For caregivers, especially of young children, intense activity may not be an option if it reduces watchfulness of those in your care. If you only experience flow from work and you retire, you set yourself up for depression. Flow can get you into trouble if achieved from socially undesirable activities, like vandalism, or from unwise activities like gambling. Addictions mimic flow, but as time passes, more is needed to get the desired result.

How can you get more flow? Concentration and focus are at the heart of flow. Children gravitate toward flow and can be models for us. Look for what engages you.

Using your character strengths may be your best entree into flow, especially if you want more flow at work. Strengths are moral traits, character traits, the values you put into action. You can find out what your character strengths are by taking the V.I.A. Signature Strengths Survey at

Each of us use different strengths at different times in our lives. Some will be consistent throughout our lives, some will be more important to us at one time than another. Using character strengths as an entree to flow is only one benefit to the awareness of character strengths. Identifying strengths help harness personality traits that will optimize personal happiness. Research tells us people who deliberately find ways to use their character strengths are significantly happier and less depressed. By identifying your character strengths, you gain control over your sense of well-being because you can consciously choose when and how to exercise your values.

The engaged life can bring us happiness, but it isn’t enough. We need meaning in our life. Incorporating meaning into activities that engage you will promote flow, personal growth and social well-being. That brings us to the third path to happiness.

The Meaningful Life:
Purpose and Life Beyond Ourselves

A meaningful life is one that joins with something larger than we are. The best we can do as individuals is to choose to be a small part of furthering goodness by being part of something larger than ourselves. The larger that something is, the more meaning our lives have. We’re talking about life in service of something larger, belonging to something larger, and using our strengths that support that. The something larger can include God, our nation, our community, an organization, and/or our families. We can choose what course to take in life. Belonging to a strong family and a strong community increase meaning and purpose in our lives.

Some researchers think the epidemic of depression in the United States is a result of having lost meaning, the spiritual foundation of family and community, over the last 50 years. Depression is 10 times more frequent now than in the 1950’s. The average age for the onset of depression 50 years ago was 30. Now it’s 15. Individualism is rampant. Our We is smaller. Trauma and failure are a part of life, and without the consolation of extended family or a sense of community, what do we turn to? Meaning bolsters and builds resilience when hard times come.

When there’s a sense of belonging to something larger, we have a desire to make the world a better place. We have an investment in justice, a broader moral circle that comes with tolerance and loyalty, a bond of trust with others. We also have a desire to carry our own weight and a desire to preserve the culture. The danger of being part of a larger community is becoming exclusive and/or rigid. These attitudes offer a false sense of security, but not happiness.

Examples of meaningful activities include philanthropy, mentoring, teaching Sunday School, and involvement with grandchildren or future generations. What are some activities in your life that are expressions of the meaningful life?

Take some time now to think about intentional activities that will contribute to your happiness in each of the three areas we’ve talked about. What are you doing now that you want to do more of? What did you add to increase happiness that is not currently part of your life?

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

Copyright 2011, Jacque Ristau

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"The trick is in what one

emphasizes. We either make

ourselves miserable, or we make

ourselves happy. The amount of

work is the same."

Carlos Castenada