Positive emotions and purpose

This content is syndicated from Energized Work | agile in action by Simon Baker. To view the original post in full, click here.

This post is really a sidebar to my musings about purpose and vision. It’s reference information rather than any real thoughts of my own, which I’ve pulled together because I wanted to touch on the theories behind the positive feelings we experience when we have a sense of purpose and do meaningful work.

What’s a feeling?

A feeling is an emotional state or reaction to something experienced. Happiness is therefore an emotional state that we enter after we have been positively stimulated by some experience.

There’s a lot of psychology about positive emotions such as happiness and interest, and how these expand our awareness and encourage us to be innovative, seek greater diversity, and be more exploratory in the things we do. This effort builds our skills and resources, e.g. curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence. Much of the research points to the important things being relationships with other people, experiencing flow and accomplishment, and things that help to promote meaning, the purpose in life.

Authentic happiness and well-being

In his work on Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes three kinds of happiness that we can experience, one progressing to the next - pleasure and gratification; embodiment of strengths and virtues; meaning and purpose. Pleasure is fleeting. Pleasures have clear sensory and strong emotional components. Gratification is long-lasting and requires effort. It typically comes from doing activities we really enjoy because they fully engage us and they’re not easily habituated. We become immersed and lose self-consciousness.

He proposes three different routes to happiness:

  1. The Pleasant Life is a life of enjoyment that consists of as many pleasures as possible. We experience and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living, for example from our relationships, hobbies, and interests, or being entertained. Seligman says this is the most transient form of happiness and may be the least important, despite the constant attention we give it.

  2. The Good Life is a life of engagement. We know our strengths and we shape our work, relationships, and leisure to use those strengths so that we experience the benefits of flow more in our lives.

  3. The Meaningful Life is a life of affiliation. We use our strengths in the service of something that we believe is larger than us (e.g. nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems) and derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose.

In his book, Nonzero, Robert Wright explores our social and natural evolution in terms of game theory, with zero-sum and non-zero-sum interactions being played out. Seligman proposes that positive emotions have evolved to help us identify and make the most of non-zero-sum interactions, whilst negative emotions help us identify and play zero-sum interactions. Does this explain why our intrinsic desires are so emotionally charged?

Seligman’s thinking has since moved away from the different aspects of happiness towards a theory of well-being, which he calls the PERMA framework:

  1. Pleasure (tasty foods, warm baths, etc)

  2. Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity)

  3. Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness)

  4. Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger)

  5. Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals)

This framework accommodates the people who don’t seem very happy, but do seem to be doing well - he refers to them as Flourish.


Czikszentmihalyi explains how we can achieve happiness by entering a state of perfect equilibrium. In the state of flow, we are completely and utterly absorbed in an activity. It is characterized by intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, a feeling of being perfectly challenged (neither bored nor overwhelmed). There is a sense that time is flying by. Flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience and can be experienced in many different ways, for example during play, being creative, and doing work. To experience flow, you need to be sufficiently challenged. Being too challenged results in anxiety. Not being challenged enough results in boredom.

Czikszentmihalyi identified nine elements of flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way

  2. There is immediate feedback to the action taken

  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills

  4. Action and awareness are merged

  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness

  6. There is no worry of failure

  7. Self-consciousness disappears

  8. The sense of time becomes distorted

  9. The activity becomes autotelic (an end in itself, done for its own sake)

That’s some deep shit, right there. I enjoy the Zappos language around this stuff, it’s accessible.

Delivering happiness

Zappos is “building a lifestyle all about delivering happiness to everyone, including ourselves.” Happiness is their brand and culture. Happiness is their platform for growth, their “path to profits, passion and purpose”. Take a look at the Zappos graphic below.

Zappos Happiness Framework

Chasing the next high is a sugar-rush roller coaster ride that only gives out short bursts of pleasure. It’s a pleasant life, a Hollywood happiness that’s ultimately unfulfilling, when we’re pressured to hit local targets, or forced to achieve extrinsic goals, or driven to generate ever more profit (to feed shareholders voracious short-term appetite).

A passion for the work facilitates the state of flow. It’s a good life to be so engaged. Time flies when we’re having fun.

Working with a higher purpose gives meaning to our work. We lead a meaningful life that rewards us intrinsically because we contribute to something bigger than us, something that we believe in.

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