Pursuing Greater Happiness and Meaning in Life
“Goodness is about character – integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.” – Source Dennis Prager
What is Ethics?
This past Monday I blogged about the Buddhist "Enlightened Path," a set of guiding principles to enhance happiness and meaning in life. In today's blog I explain why these two values are important and how they can enhance well-being.
Most of us want to attain happiness. Most of us seek out greater meaning in life through our personal relationships, workplace experiences, and life-ling decisions, but, how do we achieve a higher level of well-being? What steps can we take to get there?
Ethics concerns an individual’s moral judgments about right and wrong. These judgments reflect our character and thought process – the way we reason through difficult decisions in life and choose between alternative courses of action. It is sometimes said that ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking. Ethical decisions are driven by a desire to do the right thing, not because it brings monetary rewards, power, or prestige. Instead, being an ethical person is a goal in itself: I want to be a better person so I choose to act ethically.
Ethics remains relevant to everyday life today because the fundamental issues involved in human interactions in society are the same no matter where or when people interact. A good place to start to understand what is meant by ethics is The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule tells us to: “Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you. The Golden Rule is the underlying tenet of ethical behavior in most religions around the world.
We use ethics in our daily lives to improve the quality of our relationships. High quality close relationships contribute to mental and physical well-being. They fulfill our psychological need for intimacy and belongingness.
How we deal with others is based on what we value in relationships. What we value in relationships should be the motivation for our actions. Ideally, we should strive to turn those values into virtues, or positive traits of character, by applying them to those relationships and, over time, building a strong character.
The ancient Greeks thought of virtue as a trait or quality that is deemed morally good. The Greek term arete, in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. The term may also mean moral virtue. The presence of moral virtues, then, can direct a person’s behavior to achieve moral excellence and, according to the ancient Greeks, a state of eudaimonia, the Greek word for happiness or welfare. However, the Greeks thought of happiness in broader terms linking it to moral excellence and the end state of “human flourishing.” Human flourishing is characterized by a life worth living, the good life, and a state of well-being.
Linking Ethical Behavior to Well-Being
Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, identifies five endeavors crucial to human flourishing – positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose in life, and accomplishment. These elements, which we choose for their own sake in our efforts to flourish, are the foundation of human well-being.
Subjective well-being is the scientific term for happiness and life satisfaction – thinking and feeling that your life is going well, not badly. The science of well-being suggests that as well as experiencing good feelings, people need to undertake activities which are meaningful, engaging, and which make them feel competent and autonomous.
Research in Positive Psychology suggests that happiness and meaning are, in fact, essential elements of well-being. Happiness and meaning are strongly correlated with each other, and often feed off each other. The more meaning we find in life, the happier we typically feel, and the happier we feel, the more we feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose. One way to think about well-being is through the formula: Happiness + Meaning = Well-being.
Happiness can bring more meaning to our lives but does not ensure it. Similarly, greater meaning does not ensure we will be happy. Taken together, happiness and meaning enhance our well-being and both are advanced by leading an ethical life.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 5, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website and sign up for his newsletter.