There are many ways of understanding human well-being, but perhaps the most simple and useful is to think in terms three different approaches. In other words, if you want to find happiness, there are three different routes you can take.
First of all, there is doing. There are certain activities you can engage in that are highly likely to bring you well-being. You can have contact with nature, for example. You can practice altruism, kindness, and generousity to the people around you. You can exercise, spend more time socializing, and ensure there are activities in your life that will provide you with "flow"—the state of intense absorption, which comes when we engage with challenging and stimulating activities. You can also try to ensure there are goals in your life to engage you and for you to work toward. In this way, the path of doing is clearly a very effective way of bringing well-being into your life.
Secondly, there is thinking. You can bring more well-being into your life by changing the way you think. You can learn to think positively rather than negatively. You can identify your "scripts" of repetitive negative thoughts and replace them with more rational thinking patterns. You can learn to interpret events positively and train yourself to see the future in an optimistic light. And perhaps most importantly of all, you can cultivate a sense of gratitude and appreciation. You can learn to value aspects of your life that you used to take for granted, such as the people in your life, your health, the social conditions you live in (such as the peacefulness and stability of your life), and even the fact of being alive itself.
The third approach is happiness through being. There is a well-being we experience whenever our inner-being—or consciousness—is in a relatively quiet or empty state. We experience this when we stop striving to achieve things or when we stop living in the future and give our full attention to our experience in the present. We often experience it in the countryside, when the stillness and beauty of nature have the effect of relaxing and slowing down our minds, filling us with a sense of ease and aliveness. We might experience it when we go running or swimming—even though we might feel physically tired, we’re glowing with a vibrant energy and inner calm and wholeness. It might happen during or after meditation, yoga, or a period of playing or listening to music.
In these moments we feel in a positive, contented state without knowing exactly why. We feel happy without necessarily having any reason to be happy. We don’t feel happy because something good has happened to us or because we have something to look forward to. We feel happy just because a tangible energetic sense of well-being is inside us. It’s almost as if the energy we sense within us in these moments—the energy of our being or consciousness—has a natural quality of well-being.
This is the "well-being of being" itself, which you can cultivate by developing inner quietness, by giving yourself the opportunity to "withdraw" from activity and external stimuli for a while, and allowing your mind to slow down and empty. Probably the best way to do this is to meditate or practice other meditative-type activities such as swimming, running, tai chi, or yoga. Meditation will allow you not only to experience this well-being on a temporary basis, but it will help you to "touch into it" on an ongoing, long-term basis too. The happiness of being also comes from living mindfully, giving our full attention to our experience in the present rather than immersing our attention in "thought-chatter" based on the future or on alternate realities.
In my view, these three approach to happiness are equally important, and they should be cultivated in parallel. As well as changing out lives by introducing activities that bring well-being and learning to think in a more positive and appreciative way, we should also aim to cultivate the inner, spiritual well-being described above. In positive psychology—the field of psychology that investigates human well-being and flourishing—inner spiritual well-being isn't given much attention. Positive psychologists almost exclusively focus on the "doing" and "thinking" approaches. But the happiness of being is very important too. In fact, in some ways it's possibly the most significant approach to happiness, because it suggests that well-being is actually natural to us, and it's something that we only need to allow to express itself, rather than attain.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity and The Fall.