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Berlin weekend: approaches to happiness

Berlin, Saturday morning.  We flew in from Edinburgh pretty early yesterday.  Direct flight.  Easy.  Guilt over air travel a little allayed by buying carbon offsets through ClimateCare.  We're staying in a Miniloft, one of the really nice set of self-catering apartments designed by Matthew Griffin & Brita Jurgens, an architect couple whose practice is up at the top of the building.

Berlin is kind of amazing.  As the Lonely Planet guide tells me "Chronic fiscal woes aside, when it comes to fashion, art, design and music, Berlin is the city to watch ... perhaps it's because of its heavy historical burden that Berlin is throwing itself into tomorrow with such manic abandon.  Cafes are jammed at all hours, drinking is a religious rite and clubs host their scenes of frenzy and hedonism until the wee hours.  Sleep?  Waaaay overated.  Come join the party!"

I may be a bit ancient to accept the invitation, but it's not so simple anyway.  The city feels full of energy, but of all kinds.  As we walked down the street yesterday, a disturbed woman sat and intermittently screamed out streams of words.  A poor street musician played an accordian.  Buildings just down the road from our apartment are still pockmarked by WW2 bullets.  Life is so rich, frightening, strange, wonderful.  How should we live?  How should we live to be happy and fulfilled?  Back in the late 1960's I read philosophy for a couple of years (before changing to medicine) partly to try to answer these kinds of questions.

I'm a fan of the recent flourishing of Positive Psychology - the attempt to explore thoughtfully and scientifically what makes the good life, how humans flourish, what individuals and institutions might best strive for when they want to go beyond "normal".  I wrote about this a while ago in a blog entitled "Ways to happiness and life satisfaction".  I mentioned Peterson & colleagues 2005 paper "Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: the full life versus the empty life" which discusses three approaches to happiness and life satisfaction - the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life), the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are), and the Pleasant Life (having as much pleasure as possible).  The research found that each of the three orientations predicted life satisfaction.  Trying to optimise Pleasure however contributed least, while optimising Engagement and Meaning were more effective in building overall life satisfaction. 

Fascinatingly, in subsequent research, Park & colleagues earlier this year published a paper on "Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction in twenty-seven nations" where they reported "Adults from 27 different nations (total N = 24,836) completed on-line surveys in English measuring orientations to the seeking of happiness (through pleasure, through engagement, and through meaning) and life satisfaction. Nations differed in their orientations and clustered into three interpretable groups in terms of them. One cluster was defined by relatively high endorsement of seeking pleasure and seeking engagement; the second cluster by relatively high endorsement of seeking engagement and seeking meaning; and the third cluster by relatively low endorsement of all three ways of seeking happiness. Across all nations, each of the three orientations predicted life satisfaction, although orientations to engagement and to meaning were more robustly associated with life satisfaction than was an orientation to pleasure, replicating and extending previous findings."

If the Lonely Planet guide is right that many people in Berlin are currently heavily focussed on optimising pleasure, possibly it would be useful for them to know that this can be fine, but Meaning and Engagement are likely to be even richer ways of contributing to the "Full Life"!  I don't want this to sound too puritanical.  Pleasure and positive emotional states more generally are also important - see, for example, the earlier post "Savouring, mindfulness, flow & positive emotions" - but trying too exclusively to optimise pleasure is typically a self-defeating approach to life.

To explore more on signature strengths, the three entwining roads to happiness, and how you score yourself, visit the the fine Authentic Happiness website.  You're asked to log in, but this is a quick procedure.  You can then take questionnaires to assess and get feedback on your strengths, approaches to happiness, and life satisfaction.


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