In which I have a MAJOR EPIPHANY about the nature of happiness.

This weekend, while reading Frey and Stutzer’s Happiness and Economics, I read one line that led to an enormous break-through in my thinking: “It has been shown that pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, and life satisfaction are separable constructs.”

When I read that, a huge lightbulb went off in my head.

I’d been fiddling with the idea that, to be happy, I had to think about the “upside” and the “downside”—that is, I needed to think of how to have more fun, more love, more good things in life, and also how to eliminate bad feelings, like guilt and anger.

And I’d also been trying to figure out something I’d been calling “Level III,” the deep, inner sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life.

I’d been intrigued by recent research that shows that happiness and unhappiness aren’t opposite sides of the same emotion. They’re distinct, and rise and fall independently. This insight seemed very important.

But last night, it hit me—how to combine all these ideas in a simpler, richer way.

To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.

I need to generate more positive emotions, so that I increase the amount of joy, pleasure, satisfaction, approval, gratitude, intimacy, friendship, etc. in my life.

I also need to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffer less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, etc.

And apart from feeling more “good” and feeling less “bad,” I also need to thing about feeing right. That’s the feeling that I’m living the life I’m supposed to lead. So, for example, although I had a great experience as a lawyer, and got a lot of satisfaction from my work clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and being a chief advisor to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, I was haunted by an odd feeling—one that I can only described as feeling that I was always off on a tangent, that I wasn’t doing what I was “supposed” to be doing.

Here’s another example. Bowing to her husband’s wishes, a friend of mine, an art consultant who grew up in New York, has ended up living in a midsized midwestern city. And she’s tried and tried to like it, but she just doesn’t. She says it just doesn’t “feel right” to her, that she’s living there. And someone else might not “feel right” if her family was living in a little apartment in New York City, instead of in a house with a yard and a garden and a basketball hoop.

I think “feeling right” is one way that considerations like money, family expectations, ambition, and social comparison come into play. “Living right” means finding flow and being spiritual and following your bliss; I think it often also means achieving a certain status and material standard of living. And “feeling right” is also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself, doing the right thing.

Sometimes “feeling right” might be a source of “feeling bad.” Your long commute might make you “feel bad,” but sending your children to a great public school is important for you to “feel right.”

This formula—“think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right”—sounds so banal, so obvious, so copied-from-the-cover-of-a-glossy-magazine, that I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it has taken me years of hard thinking and research to devise it.

I remember having the same feeling when I had my epiphany that Winston Churchill’s life satisfied the stringent requirements of classical tragedy. It was so hard for me to accomplish this thought, but then once I did, I felt a bit ridiculous, belaboring a point that was so perfectly clear.

But, I console myself, the obvious things are probably true.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • JDH

    Wow. This is really a great way to explain your project. I’ve been reading for several months and have been making an effort to pay attention to how I feel and why. I’ve struggled with trying to organize all of that — the feelings, situations, etc. — but this really makes it all click. I feel like I want to tell other people about this framework — and I think I will!

  • Leela

    Feeling right and living right say alot…I love it. I saw recently a snippet of oprah where she spoke with an Amish man was “100% content”. I did not know it was possible to be 100% content and was instantly envious. Perhaps feeling right and living right would lead one to 100% contentment.
    I was perusing my sister-in-law’s old 1970’s copy of Creative Visualization by Shatki Gawain, finding numerous “lightbulb” quotes in the first few pages. I sought out my own copy, and I’ve found it incredibly interesting in terms of the generation of positive thinking. Definitely recommended reading.
    I read your site regularly, and enjoy it as part of my own quest for contentment. I’m a mom of a Big Girl and Little Girl as well, and particularly enjoy hearing about their antics. Thank you for sharing!

  • I’m glad you used the term, following your bliss, because that is exactly what I was thinking when you first mentioned “feeling right”. I think feeling right trumps the feeling good and feeling bad. As you say, you can endure feeling bad if it is part of feeling right. Once you start feeling right, the feeling good things start to come more frequently. Great post.

  • Sharyn

    RE: Feeling right, living right
    “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Yeah, I’m a veritable fountain of unctuous platitudes). You can’t be happy if your heart’s not in it.

  • I didn’t realize this has been my struggle for quite a while now. I kept equating feeling good and feeling right, I would avoid duties/projects that didn’t feel good, instead doing things that made me feel good (momentarily). But feeling right feels SO much better to me than feeling good. Gretchen you are awesome!

  • Sophie

    Re: feeling right as a source of feeling bad
    One of the things I learned when I worked with homeless women was that abusive relationships often “felt right” to them. Several of our clients had left a non-abusive partner to begin or resume a relationship with an abuser because they knew in their hearts that a man who didn’t batter didn’t care. Others left our program and returned to their abusers because they felt it was the “right thing” to do. They would say “well, he needs me” or “you’re supposed to stand by your man” or “he wouldn’t have broken my collarbone if I hadn’t done…” whatever the excuse for the battering was.
    For some of these women “being strong” and “honoring a commitment” (especially marriage vows) was a source of self-esteem and respect from friends/family that they were reluctant to give up by “running out” or “making trouble” for him, e.g., by pressing charges.
    One of our social workers said one of the hardest parts of her job was convincing her clients that there were people in the world who would admire them more if they left an abusive partner than if they stayed.

  • Patti

    Hey, I saw your book recced on Head Butler today. Small blogosphere!

  • Max

    You have a lot of great things to say. Check out the new book – A Simple Guide to Happiness: From a mystical perspective.(available on amazon) Its right up your alley.

  • Love the framework.
    For me, “feeling good” is about all looking on the bright side, having a light perspective, finding the glass half-full … things that I (usually) do pretty naturally.
    For me, not “feeling bad” is what I learned in two years of therapy with my brilliant shrink. You’ve put a name on what it took me awhile to figure out — that you can always look on the upside but you need to figure out what’s going on in the “feeling bad” space in order to be whole (and consistently happy).
    For me, “feeling right” is all about flow, in the Csikszentmihalyi sense. This works for me more than “right livelihood” or “living your dream” concepts, which I’ve always wanted to go for but had trouble instituting. Whereas flow is finding the greatness in everyday experience through engagement.

  • Pat

    Now we’re getting somewhere. Your article today strongly reminded me of Amanda, in Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction” on this subject:
    “The most important think in life is style. That is, the style of one’s existence- the characteristic mode of one’s actions- is basically, ultimately what matters. For if a man defines himself by doing, then style is doubly definitive because style describes the doing. The point is this. Happiness is a learned condition. And since it is learned and self-generating, it does not depend upon external circumstances for its perpetuation. This throws a very ironic light on content. And underscores the primacy of style. It is content, or rather the consciousness of content, that fills the void. But the mere presence of content is not enough. It is style that gives content the capacity to absorb us, to move us; it is style that makes us care.”

  • Lael

    I wonder if you could point me to where you’ve seen the research that “happiness and unhappiness aren’t opposite sides of the same emotion. ” That’s a fascinating concept.

  • Mal

    What if your ‘feeling right’ is wrong? Maybe your NY friend living in the mid-west needs to alter her feeling? Maybe your friends who ‘feel right’ have simply got used to an upper east side lifestyle and just feel that is right? Look to Seneca, rather than Harry Potter, for greater insight! (The good is the enemy of the best).

  • I agree, but I’d like to propose another wording:
    “To be happy, INCREASE the good, ELIMINATE the bad, and LISTEN to your feelings.”
    Your current wording raises more questions than it answers. “think about… feeling bad?” Why would I think about feeling bad to be happy? Ahh, you need to think about [eliminating the things that make you] feel bad.
    To be happier, you need to think about FEELING GOOD, FEELING BAD, and FEELING RIGHT, in an atmosphere of growth. Clunky, but it works.