The 3 Foundations of Happiness

Foundations of Happiness: What makes you happy?  While this seems like a simple question, it can be difficult for many people to answer. Too often the first answer revolves around material things: more money, a new car, a better house, better holidays, etc., but wealth does not necessarily make you more happy. Obviously if you have no money and are living on the streets, getting money directly leads to happiness.  But research has shown that additional wealth above $20,000 for a person does not lead to lasting happiness.  So if wealth is not the root of lasting happiness, then what is?

If you search amazon for books on happiness, you will be inundated with thousands of titles: Some from celebrities, some from successful business leaders, some from religious figures, etc….  The list of “authorities” on happiness is too long to count.  But at Caveman in a Suit, we base our recommendations on Science.  So when it comes to happiness, I would like to introduce the 3 sources of happiness as defined by the psychologist Martin Seligman and the field of Positive Psychology.

Martin defines the big 3 sources of happiness as Pleasure, Challenge, & Meaning. Pleasure can be derived from quick immediate things like: a nice bottle of wine, laughing with your friends, or relaxing afternoon in a spa.  Challenge is the happiness that comes from accomplishing something difficult that required effort, like: running a marathon, reading a long novel, or building something for your backyard.  Meaning is the belief that our actions are having an impact on something we consider worthwhile, like: supporting a charity, supporting our family, or making a difference in our workplace.

3 foundations of happiness

Understanding the Sources of Happiness and when they Overlap

The big 3 sources of happiness are not mutually exclusive, and some of the best sources of happiness come from when they overlap.  With that in mind here are the different zones of happiness.

Zone 1 – All Pleasure – This is the zone of pure pleasure.  The problem with this zone is that most people start confusing things they crave versus things they enjoy.  This is where people get hung up on wealth, as they think that the next thing is going to make them even happier.  I knew a colleague who loved Harley motorcycles, but he was always thinking about upgrading his current motorcycle. But his happiness from upgrading his motorcycle only lasted a few months until he was talking about the next upgrades needed.  But if you asked him what he really loved about his motorcycle, it wasn’t the chrome features; it was taking long rides with his buddies.  His true source of pleasure was being with his friends on these trips, even though he thought his source of happiness was “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Zone 2 – Challenging Pleasure – This is the zone where we are doing something difficult that is also a great source of pleasure.  I am not a runner, so I cannot say this from my personal experience, but many of the long distance runners I know talk about the runners high.  They push and push their bodies, and then at some point during the run the pain switches to pleasure.  For other people it may be learning a new song on the guitar, or learning to paint.  In a work setting it can be working on a difficult but intellectually engaging project.  For example, I experience a lot of happiness when I lead a training session.  I not only find the process of creating the training program to be a rewarding challenge, I also find the act of teaching an audience to be exhilarating.  In this manner I experience both the pleasure and challenge sources of happiness.

Zone 3 – All Challenge – Not every challenging situation is fun when you are in the middle of it.  Sometimes the journey is miserable, but the end is worth it.  A sense of accomplishment is often a great source of joy.  Finishing your taxes, cleaning your house, or organizing your files at work may not be enjoyable in the moment, but you are probably happy when its done.  The difficult thing with this zone is knowing when to continuing plowing forward versus when to stop.  If you set impossibly difficult challenges for yourself, then most likely you will fail.  But if your challenges are too easy, then your sense of accomplishment will not be triggered.  Very few people feel happy when they have successfully arrived on time to work.  You need to set challenges that stretch you, but are still within your grasp.

Zone 4 – Meaningful Challenges – Sometimes the difficult things we need to do are for a good reason, for example charity work.  Working for Habitat for Humanity can involve some backbreaking labor as you build a house, but your happiness comes from seeing a completed house that you built and knowing it will go to a family in need.  This zone is not a top choice among people trying to become happier, but surprisingly, this zone is one of the strongest drivers of overall happiness.  Research has shown that people in this zone are significantly happier then people residing primarily in the Hedonism zone.   This is something to remember next Saturday morning when you have to decide whether to stay on the couch, or get out and help someone.  The couch may bring immediate happiness, but the helping others will bring you an even greater joy.

Zone 5 – All Meaning – Doing something that is meaningful is not always hard.  Changing the diapers of your child is not physically or mentally hard, but it is a necessary part of being a parent.  Working with a local charity, spending time helping a local club where you are a member, or even coaching little league can be very meaningful, but not necessarily challenging or even pleasurable.  In your professional life, meaning matters a lot.  There are three different ways you can view your current position, and they all impact your happiness at different levels:

  • Job – You view your occupation as a means to gain the money needed to live your life. This is a ‘work to live’ viewpoint, and it usually means that your occupation is not a source of meaning or pleasure in your life.
  • Career – You view your occupation as a way to advance to future and better roles. These people, while getting pleasure for their roles, are always looking at the next thing.  If you primarily view your occupation with a career mindset, you are at risk of not enjoying today, because you are always focused on tomorrow.
  • Calling – You love your occupation because you believe it serves a greater purpose, and improves the world around you. Some of the leaders I have worked with tend to get caught up in the management of day to day, and they forget all about the overarching meaning of their organization.  How often are you motivated by the critical role your organization plays in your community?

Zone 6 – Meaningful Pleasures – These are great win-win situations, as you are getting a lot of pleasure while doing something meaningful.  Think about the last training course or banking conference you attended that you truly enjoyed.  You chose to go to the conference because it would help you improve your professional abilities, but that didn’t stop you from enjoying learning new things or networking with interesting people.  Some people have hard times with this zone, because they believe that one’s duty shouldn’t be pleasurable.  This is a limiting mindset, because one’s responsibilities do not need to be selfless.  Think about how much better your life would be if you took enjoyment from performing your daily responsibilities.

Zone 7 – Nirvana – This is the best situation to be in.  These are the times you are thoroughly enjoying something that is not only challenging, but also holds meaning for your life.  Sometimes it will be the big events in your life like making the final pitch to a big client, or putting together a romantic marriage proposal. But sometimes it will be the small things.  Anyone who has ever had a toddler knows that every day is full of joy, challenges, and feelings of purpose. It would be very easy to say that you should try to spend 100% of your time in the Joy zone, but that is unlikely, as not all situations will fill all three criteria.  But when you are in the Joy zone, you should relish it.

Tips & Tricks to improve your Happiness

Knowing the different kinds of things that make you happy is only the first step.  At some point you actually have to do something about it.  The international training organization the MindGym has identified 3 different things you can do to increase the amount of time you are happy.

  • Change the way we think about the activities we don’t really enjoy – Many people know the saying, when life gives you lemons make lemonade. The first thing you can do to increase your happiness, is to try and shift your perspective on the things you don’t really enjoy.  The easiest way to shift your perspective is to try and focus on a different source of happiness.  For example, I really do not enjoy reconciling my personal finances and bills.  These are some different ways I could shift my perspective:
    • Pleasure – I could go through the monthly expenses, and force myself to remember the different activities and adventures we had. Remembering the romantic dinner with my wife reminds me that these are not just transactions but pleasurable memories.
    • Challenge – I can set myself a specific challenge, like completing my reconciliation within an hour. Or I could challenge myself to use my historical spending data to forecast my future spending behaviors. Building this forecast may be difficult, but it would giver me a clearer perspective on how to improve my spending habits.
    • Meaning – I could look at these tasks as part of my role in my family, and something I do so I can make sure my family is living a safe and comfortable life.
  • Set clear happiness goals – Increasing your happiness will not happen spontaneously, and it will require focus and effort from your side. In order to focus, you should set clear goals on why and how you want to improve your happiness.  The MindGym recommends a technique call ‘Write your own Obituary.’  If you were to pass tomorrow, how would you want to be remembered?  This kind of reflection will help you identify your purpose, which then helps you identify what you find meaningful.  Certain tasks that you once considered to be an inconvenience, might now feel connected to your greater purpose, thereby shifting a burden to a source of happiness.
  • Add a new source of happiness to the situation to reach the Joy zone – These are some different ways to add pleasure, challenge or meaning in order to move a situation into the Joy zone.
    • Pleasure – Find the humor in what you are doing, because any task is better when we are laughing. Include treats and rewards along the way.  Do the activity with people you really enjoy.
    • Challenge – Find a new method to accomplish the same outcome. Raise the standards on what you consider acceptable.  Include some extra goals in the task.    Try to do it in less time.
    • Meaning – Consider how the situation reinforces your identity and purpose? Keep asking the questions about what is the impact and benefit of your efforts.  Reflect on how you will be better off physically, mentally, emotionally, or even financially if you continue with these tasks.

Improving your happiness will make you a better colleague and a better leader

Some of you may be wondering why we focused on improving happiness.  The truth is that happiness is closely tied to engagement in the workforce.  The happier you are in your life and in your profession, then the more engaged you will be in your role.  And frequent readers of the Caveman In a Suit know that engagement is proven to drive business performance.  The more engaged your employees are, the more successful your organization will be.

This is why you need to be thinking about the happiness levels of yourself and the rest of your organization.  You need to be the role model on finding happiness in your work, and not succumbing to the daily grind. No one else is going to prioritize your happiness more than yourself.  So take the time needed for reflection and spend the time investing in your own happiness.

Finally, I would like to give credit to the company who is the inspiration source of research for this article.  I have had the pleasure to work with the international training company Mind Gym, which specializes in integrating best in class practices, science, and energetic activities into 90 minute training modules.  You might not think you can learn a lot in 90 minutes, but you would be wrong.  Mind Gym has created some of the best material I have ever worked with, and that is based on my experience running the training and development for 2 Fortune 500 companies.  Their website in

The 3 Foundations of Happiness

Highlight and Tweet it – Happiness comes from mixing Pleasure with Challenge and Meaning.  #Cavemanthoughts

One thought on “The 3 Foundations of Happiness

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  1. Finding balance and happiness is not always easy in the workforce but the article and also the Mind Gym provides a starting point. Too often we are too focused to stop and think what really makes us happy and also to notice others and appreciate what they deliver. Stop and smell the roses and give thanks for what we have is one way to understand what is mans to be happy and finding the right place to be.

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