I’m a great admirer of positive psychology, which has been a fantastic corrective to the traditional ‘disease model’ of psychology and has provided an extremely helpful examination of the different factors that constitute human well-being. However, I think there is one important aspect of human well-being which positive psychology has largely ignored.
Positive psychologists have suggested that there are two main types of well-being: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic well-being means feeling good in the present moment, and includes physical pleasure, peak experiences and a sense of gratitude or appreciation. Eudaimonic well-being is more long term – it includes a sense of meaning and purpose, of being connected to something larger, and of flourishing through creativity or self-development.
Martin Seligman’s PERMA model offers a similar perspective. According to this model, the five main elements of a life of flourishing and well-being are positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
However, there is one important type of well-being missing from these models: inner well-being, or what might be called ‘energetic’ or ‘spiritual’ well-being. This is a well-being which we experience whenever our inner being — or consciousness — is in a relatively quiet or empty state. You might experience it when you’re in the countryside, when the stillness and beauty of nature have the effect of relaxing and slowing down your mind, and you’re filled with a sense of ease and aliveness. You might experience it during and after exercise, such as swimming or running. Even though you might feel physically tired, you’re glowing with a vibrant energy and inner calm and wholeness. It might happen during or after a yoga session, or after you’ve played music for a period of time: there’s a sense of richness and warmth inside you, which seems to have a natural quality of well-being.
In these moments we feel in a positive, contented state without knowing exactly why. We feel happy without necessarily having any reason to be happy. We don’t feel happy because something good has happened to us, or because we have something to look forward to. We feel happy just because a tangible energetic sense of well-being is inside us. It’s almost as if the energy we sense within us in these moments — the energy of our being or consciousness — has a natural quality of well-being.
There is a connection with the state of ‘flow’ here. As the investigations of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others have shown, the state of being intensely absorbed in a challenging activity generates well-being, and it is important for us to regularly engage with such ‘flow-inducing’ activities. And I would argue that one of the main reasons why flow generates well-being is because it has the effect of emptying and quietening our minds, and so allows us to experience the energy of our being in a pure and intense form.
Why should ‘being’ or ‘consciousness’ have a natural quality of well-being? There is no answer for this. It simply does, in the same way that water has a quality of wetness.
In the Hindu spiritual tradition, the fundamental reality of the universe is satchitananda — being-consciousness-bliss. Being or consciousness equate with bliss, and that bliss is both inside and outside us, as a fundamental characteristic of the universe, and of our own being. It is precisely because being has this quality of well-being that meditation has such powerful positive effects. When we meditate, we remove ourselves from external stimuli, give our minds a rest from concentrating on tasks and activities, and try to slow down and quieten the surface thought-chatter of our minds. As a result, we begin to ‘tap into’ this fundamental quality of well-being within us.
Doing, Thinking and Being
When I teach positive psychology classes I suggest to my students that well-being stems from three main sources. Or to put it more directly, if you want to to be happy, there are three main approaches you can take.
First of all, there is doing. There are certain activities you can engage in which are highly likely to bring you well-being. You can have contact with nature, for example. You can practise altruism, being kind and generous to the people around you. You can exercise, spend more time socialising, and ensure that there are activities in your life which will provide you with flow. You can try to ensure that there are goals in your life to engage you and for you to work towards. In this way, the path of doing is clearly a very effective way of bringing well-being into your life.
Secondly, there is thinking. You can bring more well-being into your life by changing the way you think. You can learn to think positively rather than negatively. You can identify your ‘scripts’ of repetitive negative thoughts and replace them with more rational thinking patterns. You can learn to interpret events positively and train yourself to see the future in an optimistic light. And perhaps most importantly of all, you can cultivate a sense of gratitude and appreciation. You can learn to value aspects of your life which you used to take for granted, such as the people in your life, your health, the social conditions your live in (such as the peacefulness and stability of your life) and even the fact of being alive itself.
Thirdly, you can also find happiness through being. This means that you can experience the energetic or spiritual well-being inside you, by cultivating a state of mental quietness, by giving yourself the opportunity to ‘withdraw’ from activity and external stimuli for a while, and allowing your mind to slow down and empty. Probably the best way to do this is to meditate, or practice other meditative-type activities such as swimming, running, tai chi or yoga. Meditation will allow your experience this well-being on a temporary basis, as well as helping you to ‘touch into it’ on an ongoing, long term basis too.
In my view, this inner aspect is in some ways the most significant type of well-being, since it suggests that well-being is actually the nature of being. In a very real sense, happiness is already here. It is natural to us. In fact it is our nature. And we are already happy, if we can allow ourselves to be.
Previous articles by Steve Taylor:
- Reclaiming The Self – Is Your Sense Of Self An Illusion?
- The Power Of Silence
- Happiness Comes from Giving and Helping, Not Buying and Having
- A Sense of Purpose Means a Longer Life
- Empathy – The Power of Connection
- Ecocide: The Psychology of Environmental Destruction
- Transcending Human Madness
- If Women Ruled the World – Is a Matriarchal Society the Solution?
About the author:
Steve Taylor holds a Ph.D in Transpersonal Psychology and is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. For the last three years Steve has been included in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine’s list of the ‘100 most spiritually influential living people’ (coming in at #31 in 2014).
Steve is also the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds and The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of A New Era. His books have been published in 16 languages and his research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.