The Three Ingredients to a Happy Life

Woman looking out of camper van window.
The keys to happiness. Dougal Waters / Getty Images

Happiness is something we all strive for. According to His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, "The purpose of our lives is to be happy."

The Dalai Lama also said, "Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your actions." Happiness is not something that we are just born with but is something that we can achieve.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has been studying what makes extremely happy people different from the rest of the population.

In his TED Talk from 2004 on the New Era of Positive Psychology, he discusses three types of happy lives. The first type of happy life he discusses as in the "Hollywood sense," is the "pleasant life", which consists, unsurprisingly, of filling your life with pleasant things. The second type of happy life is the "engaged life," which involves gaining happiness through engagement with others in your life, and the third type of happy life is the "meaningful life," which entails filling your life with purpose and using your greatest gifts toward a larger purpose. Seligman was interested in how the pursuit of pleasure, engagement and meaning contributed to a satisfied life. His findings were surprising to him.

The pursuit of pleasure

Seligman found that, in and of itself, the pursuit of pleasant things really does not have much bearing on one's overall satisfaction in life. Rather, he found that the pursuit of pleasure only mattered when it was complemented by the other two types of happiness, engagement and meaning.

When you have a life with engagement and meaning, and you can add pleasure into the mix, Seligman refers to pleasure as "the whipped cream and cherry" on top. 

Action tip: Seek social engagement and find meaning in your life first, and then go after pleasure.

The pursuit of engagement

Social engagement is often cited as a source of happiness.

 It is important to stay mentally healthy with strong social connections, especially because loneliness has so many negative repercussions. Seligman found that those who were happiest had the strongest ties to friends, family and romantic partners. Research continues to emerge about the importance of strong relationships. ​Take it from the Dalai Lama: 

"We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection."

Action tip: Take care of your relationships. Stay in touch with your friends and always work on your romantic relationship to make sure it is your best.

The pursuit of meaning

Those who have a sense of their purpose in life, who pursue meaning, and who use their strengths and gifts to help the world enjoy the highest level of life satisfaction and happiness, particularly when coupled with engagement. If you have no idea what your purpose in life is and finding meaning sounds like a daunting task, start small. Try to be a detective to figure out what your unique strengths are. Many say that each of us has a unique purpose here on earth, but we have to figure out what it is. 

Action tip: Start doing something that you are good at that you also enjoy and help others with it.

Or, if that sounds too difficult to figure out, try volunteering. Helping others feels good, and contributes to life satisfaction. 

The trifecta of meaning, engagement and pleasure

Seligman found that a life of meaning and engagement is ultimately what leads to the greatest satisfaction. Add pleasure to the mix and you will have extreme happiness. He reports that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole; if you can achieve a life rich with strong relationships, meaning and purpose, and manage to have a good time and enjoy life's pleasures along the way, you just might be able to cultivate extreme happiness.


Martin Seligman TED Talk: The New Era of Positive Psychology, 2004