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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 08:13 GMT 09:13 UK
Is there a happiness formula?
By Mike Rudin
Series producer, The Happiness Formula

Reliance on the happiness formula could actually add stress to your life

Psychologists have now come up with a formula for happiness.

Pleasure + engagement + meaning = happiness.

We all know what brings us pleasure. But the trouble is all too often it is fleeting and it just does not last.

A new school of psychology, called positive psychology, suggests that we need two other vital ingredients if we want to achieve more lasting happiness.

First, they suggest we need to be really engaged and engrossed in what we do. In the jargon it is called "flow".

We have all experienced it. It is that feeling we get when we just do not even bother to look at the clock because we are so into what we are doing.

Second, positive psychologists suggest we need meaning in our lives.

We can get this from doing an interesting job, or working on a project we really believe in, or by doing something worthwhile.

While we adapt quickly to more money and material possessions, it seems we adapt less quickly, if at all, to meaningful things.

Problems with the formula

However, this simple formula hides a number of important issues.


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It turns out you can have too much engagement and it does not necessarily lead to more happiness.

For example, you can become engrossed in work and become a workaholic and less happy.

You can experience flow in gambling but it will not necessarily make you happy.

The formula is not exhaustive or comprehensive.

As psychologist Ilona Boniwell of Oxford Brookes University points out in her article, the formula fails to take account of contentment, something which is highlighted by our opinion poll carried out by GfK NOP.

The danger of relying on any formula is that it may actually make us unhappy, by putting yet more pressure on us to live the perfect life.

And what is more there is another problem that one form of happiness often conflicts with other sources of happiness, and may even make other people unhappy.

So some people argue we should not even contemplate trying to make ourselves happier.

A little extra happiness

Positive psychologists counter this by saying that their suggestions are not miracle cures, and they accept that you cannot turn a grump into a deliriously happy person.

Martin Seligman

They maintain it is possible to make someone a little happier, as much as 10-15%, if someone works at it.

In his article about positive psychology Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who has been described as the father of positive psychology, explains some of the exercises you can do to make yourself happier.

Research is now trying to test how well these exercises work.

The exercises include disputation, which involves challenging negative thoughts and analysing whether you need to be as negative, playing to your strengths and counting your blessings for the things that go well in your life.

Scientists clearly do not have all the answers. There is as yet no simple and comprehensive formula for happiness.

However, the new emphasis on human relationships, flow and meaning does offer an interesting insight into what really makes us happy, and challenges us to think whether it might be possible to live happier lives.

You can watch The Happiness Formula on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 1900 BST



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