Gretchen Rubin

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.

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