Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

The Building Blocks of Happiness

This is a seventh entry in a series about happiness. Start at the beginning here.

In the past six entries we built a foundation for happiness. From solid stuff. We centered everything around this working definition of happiness:


Then we unpacked the definition, one building block at a time.

Happiness is a “pattern of positive emotion.” Each day is a thousand moments, and we don’t just want one moment of positive emotion in that thousand. We want positive emotion in a majority of the thousand moments. We want strong positive patterns. We also want the days to stack up into positive patterns of emotion for the week, the month, the year, the lifetime.

Happiness comes from seeing “good things” happen. We’re not just looking for emotions. We’re looking for the good things that create the good emotions. When we experience these good things, we feel good. Positive emotions don’t live on their own. They’re a result of “good happenings.” Emotions are a reasonable reaction to the way we appraise the events of our lives as good or bad.

Happiness comes from “seeing” good things happen. This means our perception of an event has more defining power than the event itself.

  • Some people see good in the same event that others see as bad. Each of us sees things from a unique point of view, and sees aspects of the situation more than the whole situation, and ascribes certain meanings to situations that others don’t ascribe.
  • Happiness comes from perceived good, not necessarily true good. When we see something as a “good happening” that really isn’t, we can feel happiness for the wrong reasons. Juvenile vandals feel extremely happy as they break into a house and smash all the mirrors. They see wrong, so they feel wrong, all the while believing they see right and feel right. Since happiness is relative to our perceptions of good, and these perceptions can be off, feelings of happiness can’t be our guide for living. True goodness must be our guide, so we’re happy about things that are truly good, not just things that seem to be good. Many people wreck their lives in the name of happiness, because they don’t make the distinction between true and false goodness.
  • We see with the eye of the mind, which means we can “see” from memory and imagination as well as seeing actual experiences. In this way we can create experiences that never happened (imagination), and relive experiences from memory as few or as many times as we’d like.
  • Vivid imaginations and vivid memories have the same effect on the mind as actual experiences. Scary movies prove this point.

So our brains have power to create all sorts of experiences besides those we have in real life, and even in the real experiences of life are seen from unique angles and in unique ways. This is why perception is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the experiences of our lives themselves.

Happiness comes from seeing good things happen “at a good pace.” Since all experiences have a shelf-life and cannot supply lasting happiness, we get lasting happiness from a well-paced series of good things that create a well-paced series of positive emotions. A good shower helps us for a day. A good meal helps us for three hours. We don’t expect them to satisfy us forever, and we shouldn’t expect the good happenings of life to satisfy us either. But when we string them together into a series of daily showers and regular meals, we’ve got the pace right. In the same way, there’s a right pace for “good happenings” and the “good feelings” these happenings create.

What’s that right pace? The researchers say at least six-to-one good things to bad things. The “good pace” of “good happenings” is expressed as a positivity ratio, that is, a ratio of the good things we experience to the bad things we experience. Researchers say healthy optimism starts at 6-to-1 and might peak out at 11-to-1. But normal people are 2-to-1, and depressed people are 1-to-1. This means the average person is just above depression and needs to triple their positivity to be healthy.

Armed with this understanding of happiness, and where it comes from, we can begin building happy lives on the foundation of true goodness.

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