The 3 Levels of Happiness
Dr Mark Atkinson
The 3 Levels of Happiness
Dr Mark Atkinson, MBBS is a mind-body medicine doctor specializing in stress resilience and optimal mind mastery training and author of True Happiness & The Mind-Body Bible.
Why do you do what you do? What motivates you to be successful, have relationships, go to work, to take up hobbies, spend time with friends or go on holiday? What is it that you are really looking for? The answer given by the majority of people is happiness. As William James, the father of modern day psychology said, ‘how to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most people at all times the secret motive of all they do.’ Happiness turns out to be one of our deepest longings.
Why are so many of us seeking happiness? Well the obvious answer is because it feels good. Think back to a time when you genuinely felt happy. As you recollect this time, notice how you feel lighter, more expansive and how your life situation appears to be so much brighter and better.
Happiness also turns out to be one of the keys to longevity. A nine-year Dutch study into the elderly, found those who were happy, optimistic or generally satisfied with life had around 50 per cent less risk of dying over the period of the study than those who were unhappy or pessimistic.1 According to Professor Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist and happiness researcher, when we feel happy we are also better able to broaden our capacity to engage more creatively and fully with life and build our potential for increased success on all levels - physical, intellectual and social level. Happiness provides the ‘fuel’ to help us live a rich, full and meaningful life.
Positive psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the study of positive aspects of human life and the factors that contribute to the well-being and flourishing of individuals, communities, and societies. It’s an enlightened, scientific approach to psychology that has contributed positively to many areas, from health and education to business and therapy. In positive psychology happiness there are two main types of happiness: subjective wellbeing and eudaimonic wellbeing.
Level 1: Subjective Wellbeing
This is the most common approach to understanding happiness in positive psychology. It includes three components:
- Positive Affect: Experiencing pleasant emotions such as joy, contentment, and love.
- Negative Affect: A lower frequency of experiencing negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and anxiety.
- Life Satisfaction: A cognitive evaluation where individuals assess the quality of their lives based on their own chosen standards.
There are many ways to assess your level of subjective well-being, but the simplest way is to reflect on your answer to these three questions:
1. Are you happy?
2. How would you rate your happiness on a scale of 1-10?
3. Are you satisfied with your life as a whole?
As long as you are being honest and the answer is true, then the happier you report yourself to be and the more satisfied you are with your life, then the higher your level of subjective wellbeing. A more formal way to assess subjective well being is by completing a questionnaire. Again, plenty of options here. Two of the most popular (both of which are validated) are:
- Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS): Measures the presence of positive and negative affect. You can take it here.
- Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS): this measures your cognitive evaluation of satisfaction with your life. You can take it here.
One of the limitations and challenges associated with subjective wellbeing is that you can score high because you are focusing on the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain and discomfort. Anyone who is sincerely committed to consciousness development and inner growth will tell you this focus on pleasure can be a recipe for addictions, shallowness, distractions, avoidance of reality, medicating emotions (think alcohol, marijuana, sugar, recreational use of drugs etc) and self-centredness. Growth, intimacy and transformation occur because we are willing to be in reality and welcome all of the difficult emotions and challenges that arise within us. This is why understanding the construct of eudaimonic wellbeing is so important.
Level 2: Eudaimonic Well-Being
This perspective on happiness focuses on realizing one's potential and living a life in harmony with your values. This tends to be a path less traveled as it requires a commitment to inner work, becoming emotionally and socially intelligent and developing a healthy, conscious, psychologically mature ego. It is the path of self-actualization. One of my favorite ways to assess eudaimonic well-being is with the Psychological Wellbeing Scale. Developed by psychologist Carol D. Ryff, the 42-item Psychological Wellbeing (PWB) Scale measures six aspects of wellbeing and happiness. These are quite detailed descriptions, but defintely worthwhile, reading slowly and reflecting on. They point to how life can be when you engage fully with life and are willing to do the inner work which is essential for flourishing.
1. Autonomy: This involves being self-determining (making choices and decisions that are true to your own interests and values); having an internal locus of control (feeling you are in control of their own lives and actions); independence (having the confidence and freedom to express unique thoughts and follow personal beliefs); self-regulation (regulating your own behavior according to your own values and system of principles); and self-endorsement of behavior (feeling a sense of authenticity in one's actions and choices).
2. Environmental Mastery: This area assesses how effectively you feel you can manage and make the most of your life situations and surrounding environment. It includes: control over external environment (being able to choose or create environments that are compatible with your personal needs, desires and values); competence in managing life's affairs (being able to effectively manage everyday life, including balancing various roles and responsibilities, and dealing with routine life challenges); making effective use of opportunities (able to navigate your social, professional, or personal landscape to find or create chances for growth and fulfillment); ability to flex (adapt to changes and new situations effectively, making the best of new circumstances, and adjusting your environment accordingly).
3. Personal Growth: This aspect focuses on the feeling of continued growth and development as a person. It includes self-improvement and development (the feeling of continuously growing and improving as a person, including the development of your potential, capabilities, and talents); realization of potential (the sense that you are realizing and actualizing your own potential, it’s about becoming what you are capable of becoming; purposeful engagement in life (engaging in activities that give a sense of purpose and meaning); self-expansion (engaging in new experiences and learning, including acquiring new skills, taking on new roles, or expanding your knowledge); increasing self-knowledge (know thyself– understanding your desires, values, past, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses, and using this knowledge for further growth).
4. Positive Relations with Others: This component measures the presence of meaningful, quality relationships in one's life. It involves having empathic, positive relationships (fulfilling relationships where mutual care, concern, and empathy are present); the presence of trust and warm regard (presence of genuine heartfelt connections that include acceptance and support); capability for intimacy (the ability to be open, vulnerable, and intimate with others, sharing yourself at a deep level and allowing for close emotional bonds); strong social support (a network of emotional and practical support that you can rely, especially during times of stress); conflict resolution (the ability to communicate clearly and respectfully and manage and resolve interpersonal conflicts in a constructive way).
5. Purpose in Life: This dimension evaluates the extent to which individuals have goals, a sense of direction, and a feeling of meaning in life. It includes the presence of meaningful goals (a clear vision for the future, goals to achieve for that future and a framework for bringing it about); positive beliefs (life-enhancing beliefs and worldview that expands you and supports your ability to live life fully); values-congruent (living in a way that is congruent with your personal values and commitments); intentionality (you are focused and consciously making choices and acting in ways that are moving you towards your life goals); and meaning (able to see how past experiences contribute to their life path and how their current actions are meaningful in the broader context of their life).
6. Self-Acceptance: This area involves a deep-seated acceptance and understanding for who you are. It includes positive self-regard (a healthy, balanced and kind view of yourself); acknowledgement of your strengths and weaknesses (recognizing and accepting your limitations and flaws, as well as acknowledging and appreciating your talents and strengths); past-positive (willing to acknowledge what happened in the past (and the consequences), process your emotions around this and arrive at a place of understanding and acceptance; self-compassion (being compassionate and kind to yourself, especially in times of difficulty or failure, rather than being critical or self-judgmental); sense of autonomy in evaluating yourself (evaluate yourself accurately and kindly by your own standards and criteria); feeling good about your life direction (includes feeling positive about where one's life is heading and the choices you are making).
There you have it, eudaimonic wellbeing in a nutshell! Each of these dimensions reflects a key aspect of what Ryff considers to be integral to psychological wellbeing. You can access the complete questionnaire here.
The how of how to make this happen, this is covered in many books including The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt and my own book True Happiness – Your Complete Guide to Emotional Health. Two other enlightened books to read and contemplate are Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life and Jett Psaris’s book Hidden Blessings: Midlife Crisis as a Spiritual Awakening. Both explore in depth the process of self-actualization and self-transcendence.
In Falling Upward, the Franciscan Father, Richard Rohr provides a roadmap for the ‘two halves of life’ and for cultivating ‘spiritual maturity.’ The latter is found “when we begin to pay attention and seek integrity” through a shift from our “outer task” to the “inner task.” In his own words: ‘Our task in the first half of life is what we think of as our primary task: making money, getting an education, raising children, and paying the mortgage. Eventually we discover, often through failure or significant loss, that our real purpose and identity are at a much deeper level than the positive image we present to the world. The second half of life is about discovering the task within the task, a journey of descent that involves challenges, failures, loss of control, and necessary suffering. Yet what looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul finds its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.” At the heart of this extraordinary developmental journey is the process of disidentification from our thought-based, manufactured ‘personal’ self and discovering the True Self, the direct experiential Truth of who we/you objectively are. If you are sincere in your desire to know the truth of reality, this fall into the second half of life is inevitable.
Jett Psaris is a psychologist and teacher whose core teaching is, in her own words, this. “Many people “die” in their 50s and just aren’t buried until their 80s. That’s because they did not take the full journey available to them at midlife. The whole point of midlife is to allow – even force – a re-evaluation of who you are and the life you have created, giving you your very best chance to discover, realize, and actualize your deepest spiritual nature in everyday life.” Hidden Blessings explores in detail the 12 stages of awakening and provides guidance on how to inquire into and navigate the tasks of each stage. You can access the study guide to accompany each book here.
One of the keys to eudaimonic happiness that is sometimes overlooked or minimized is the importance of creating and maintaining a high level of brain/body health. It is so much easier to pursue a meaningful life when you have the energy, brain and body that will enable you to do so. I cover the fundamentals of brain health in this blog article.
Level 3: Fundamental Wellbeing
There is a third type of happiness, Fundamental Wellbeing. You could also call it Self-Transcendence. This is a phrase coined by the psychology and consciousness researcher Jeffery Martin. He is a director at the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness. Their pioneering research focuses on what they refer to as Persistent or Ongoing forms of Non-Symbolic Experience. Other names for this include enlightenment, non-duality, and the one we will use here, fundamental wellbeing. They offer a systematic program of training in deconditioning, meditation and positive psychology practices, to achieve fundamental wellbeing, a way of being characterized by inner contentment, enduring happiness, and a sense of wholeness and connection with/as life. Through their research they discovered fundamental wellbeing exists along a continuum of related experiences. There are numerous locations along the continuum, but locations 1 and 2 are of greatest interest to me because they are compatible with living a high-functioning, engaged life. I encourage you to read through these slowly, as they are accurate descriptions of how life can feel when you engage in this work.
Fundamental Wellbeing Location 1: The hallmark of location 1 is the presence of a fundamental sense of okayness, especially when the person in location 1 allows themselves to sink into and open to the okayness that is already present. There is a marked shift to greater present moment awareness and an increase in feelings of wellbeing and positivity. Many people typically report a reduction in previously experienced chronic or recurrent emotional states such as anxiety or depression. Whilst challenging emotions still occur, especially when old psychological conditioning is activated, the emotions tend to pass through quickly and they are able to return to a baseline of wellbeing and inner peace more quickly. One of the fascinating consequences (and contributors) to being in location 1 is the quieting and fading into the background of the narrative-based sense of self (the Personal Self). Interest in its stories (and the stories of others) becomes significantly diminished. Stories and especially drama-filled stories no longer hold importance or attention. Some people in location 1 describe a subtle shift in how they perceive reality, often feeling a sense of connectedness or unity that was not present before.
Fundamental Wellbeing Location 2: The hallmark of location 2 is a deepening sense of wholeness, oneness (non-duality) and inner peace. The personal self has receded into the background and no longer is the prime director of the decision making process. Instead, a strong sense of intuition becomes available and with that a sense of rightness as to which decision to make about a given situation. With this is an implicit trust in this unfolding, intelligent, intuitive process. People in Location 2 often describe an increasing ability to maintain emotional balance and equanimity, regardless of circumstances. There's often a deepened sense of connection or unity with others and the world, sometimes described in terms of a lack of separation between oneself and the external world. Location 2 is full of a profound level of wellbeing. There is a real sense of freedom at location 2. It is both extraordinary and at the same time ordinary. Why? Because it feels like home.
To learn more about Fundamental Wellbeing, I encourage you to visit the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness website, purchase Dr. Jeffrey A. Martin’s book The Finders and consider their flagship course 45 Days to Awakening Challenge.
Other exceptional books that many of my students and clients have found invaluable and supportive for both the process of self-actualization and self-transcendence include: The Gene Keys (Richard Rudd); The Journey into Soul Initiation and Wild Mind (Bill Plotkin); Falling into Grace and The Direct Way (Adyashanti); The Presence Process (Michael Brown); The Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle), The Alchemy of Freedom, The Unfolding Now and Love Unveiled (A.H.Almaas); The Untethered Soul (Michael Singer), and Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark and Transformation through Intimacy (Robert Augustus Masters). There are of course many other deeply insightful and evocative books, videos and resources that can support you. The key is not to work your way through them all, but rather, to sink into and open to the depth that each of these points to.
Sink, don't think.
How Sens.ai Helps You Train Happiness
Sens.ai has the potential to help you achieve and experience a deep level of wellbeing and inner peace. The key are its Missions, Meditations and Heart Coherence training.
Missions: The Sens.ai Missions are a prescribed course of training designed to achieve a particular outcome. The key to training for happiness is progressing through The Missions. There are three categories of Missions. ME. WE. ALL. The ALL missions are associated with the highest level of wellbeing. Progressing through these will enable you to access, strengthen and sustain the brain waves associated with wellbeing (SMR, alpha, theta and gamma). For example some studies have found correlations between increased gamma wave activity and positive emotional states, such as happiness and feelings of compassion. For instance, research involving Buddhist monks during meditation showed high levels of gamma wave activity, which was interpreted as reflecting their states of compassion and heightened awareness.2 Everyone starts with the ME category. This category focuses on improving self-care, including sleep, focus, mental clarity and stress reduction. These are foundational for wellbeing and can’t be skipped. You have to be able to control your attention and access calm, in order to progress to WE. WE is focused on how we are in the world and how we relate to others and the world. This includes accessing creativity, developing a deeper level of mindfulness, letting go of limiting conditioning and bringing our best work to the world. Once the ME and WE dimensions of training are stable and present, Sens.ai unlocks ALL. ALL is our highest level of Mission. It is at this level that we can train our brain to access higher levels of wellbeing and transpersonal states of being. This includes qualities such as wholeness, oneness, unity and bliss. A journey that includes and embraces ME, WE and ALL is the master key to unlocking your happiness.
Meditations: The Sens.ai meditations were chosen to cover the four main categories of meditation; focused attention, open awareness, compassion-based and non-dual meditation. To experience a high level of happiness we need to train all four. The 14 meditations available within the Sens.ai app were chosen on the basis of research that has confirmed their potency at bringing about positive shifts in wellbeing. The meditations are paired with Sens.ai Boost programs which use light stimulation to bring about a particular desired state change and/or to prime for neurofeedback training. Uniquely at the beginning of the meditations, you are taught how to temporarily turn off the thought stream and mental chatter of your narrative-based sense of self. It takes 5 seconds to do this. From this place of still awareness, meditation naturally unfolds. The Meditations are unlocked as you progress over time.
Heart Coherence: Built into the Sens.ai headset and app is heart coherence training. Put simply, it's a way to shift your heart into a rhythmic pattern that brings harmony, balance and ease to your brain, nervous system and body. In heart coherence you feel present and engaged, calm and connected. The more you train the more effortless this becomes. It’s the combination of training the heart, the brain and the mind through meditation that makes for such a potent way to support your happiness.
Happiness is different things to people, but at its heart is the ongoing experience of inner contentment and wellbeing that unfolds from living in reality, with integrity, from your true nature. This is a path that requires honesty, sincerity and courage. It is both arduous and challenging, but ultimately revelatory. In summary a simple formula for happiness and optimal mental health as I teach it is:
Brain/Body Health + Self-Actualization + Self-Transcendence= True Happiness
To finish, I leave you with a quote by Richard Rohr.
To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us - and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body. That is the summary work of spirituality - and it is indeed work.
1. R. A. M. Arthursen, E. J. M. Feskens, B. J. M. Buuren, and D. Kromhout. "Optimism and risk of death. The Zutphen Elderly Study." Archives of Internal Medicine, 164(9): 990–996, 2004. DOI: 10.1001/archinte.164.9.990
2. Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences", 101(46), 16369-16373. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0407401101
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Mark Atkinson or sens.ai the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.