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In Pursuit of Happiness, Why Is It So Difficult?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

 Some recent researchers in psychology have published interesting findings about the issue of human happiness. These findings include some explanations of why it's difficult to achieve, as well as how to try to achieve it.


Martin Seligman, Clinical Psychologist and faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has published his research findings and developed an interesting approach to therapy that he calls Positive Psychology.

According to Seligman, our brains evolved during the Ice Age when mankind experienced famine, tremendous temperature shifts, ice melting and flooding and a wide variety of catastrophes. As a result, even today, there is a primitive part of our brain that is well adapted to the catastrophic life of pre history but is not well adapted to life in the modern world. What this means is that we are programmed to remember every tragedy, failure and unhappiness we experience. This expresses itself in our constantly looking for what is wrong or what will go wrong because we needed to think that way to survive those early times. That is why it seems as though our human brain is not well adapted to life in modern society.

Despite the state of our brains, Seligman believes that, through Positive Psychology, we can train ourselves to be happy.

What does "Happy" mean?

Seligman admits that this word, "happy" is very vague and meaningless in psychological and scientific terms. In his writings he more clearly defines, for psychological purposes, what is meant by "Happy."

Seligman on Happiness

According to Seligman, happiness is made up of three segments.

1. Positive Emotion or experiencing pleasure.
2. Engagement in life or losing oneself in meaningful activities.
3. Meaningfulness or participating in meaningful activities.

Ed. Diener, a Psychologist at the University of Illinois, goes on to explain each of these three segments of happiness:

1. Positive Emotions refers to having and enjoying family and friends. He points out that having friends and social interaction actually boosts the immune system.

2. Engagement in life refers to believing in things bigger than oneself. For example, belief in religion, or spirituality or having a philosophy of life, helps one to feel engaged or involved in life.

3. Meaningfulness refers to having long term goals and values to strive toward and improve one's self.

If you wish to learn more about this I suggest you do an Internet search of Martin Seligman and you will find his web site and can even participate in the assessment questionnaires related to happiness. There is not cost for this and it is part of the University of Pennsylvania.

Are you happy?

1. Are you able to experience positive emotions and take pleasure in family, friends or both?

2. Do you have a philosophy of life or some type of spirituality that guides you? Are you engaged in life and in activities so that you can sometimes "lose yourself?"

3. Do you believe your life is meaningful? Do you have a set of goals and do you have values that are important to you?

Of course, depression is the opposite of happiness and these researchers are aware of that. In fact, positive psychology has, as its purpose, the development of interventions to help people find these elements of happiness.

Let us remember that happiness in no way implies "all of the time." These psychologists are not naive and know full well that all of us have our "ups and downs."