Happiness is a direction

February 13, 2016

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I see the phrase 'happiness isn't a destination, it's a way of life' overlayed on countless sunsets on Pinterest and Instagram. You might not know that this origin of this quote was a series of academic essays that makes this platitude into something a little more meaningful.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


I see the phrase 'happiness isn't a destination, it's a way of life' overlayed on countless sunsets on Pinterest and Instagram. What you might not know is that the origin of the quote was a series of papers by a psychologist.

In 1961, the famous humanist psychologist Carl Rogers published a collection of essays titled 'On Becoming a Person'. In this most exquisite and optimistic collection of academic musings, Rogers came up with his concept of what constitutes the 'good life'.

In his essay entitled 'The Good Life and the Fully Functioning Person', he said that the good life isn't simply happiness or contentment. It's not a state of being. It's an ongoing process. He said that the 'good life' is the direction we choose when we have complete psychological freedom.

Rogers noted that this process seemed to have three core threads. As one begins to feel more free to pursue a direction of one's choice, these threads reveal themselves as characteristics of the person:

  • more openness to experience, both external and internal;
  • more existential living (i.e. being a part of the moment rather than trying to control it); and
  • more trust in oneself, or 'self-efficacy'.

Carl Rogers says that when you can see these three things occurring, then a person is moving to become 'fully functional'. I'll let him explain:

I should like to draw together these three threads describing the process of the good life into a more coherent picture. It appears that the person who is psychologically free moves in the direction of becoming a more fully functioning person.
He is more able to live fully in and with each and all of his feelings and reactions. He makes increasing use of all his organic equipment to sense, as accurately as possible, the existential situation within and without. He makes use of all of the information his nervous system can thus supply, using it in awareness, but recognizing that his total organism may be, and often is, wiser than his awareness. He is more able to permit his total organism to function freely in all its complexity in selecting, from the multitude of possibilities, that behavior which in this moment of time will be most generally and genuinely satisfying. He is able to put more trust in his organism in this functioning, not because it is infallible, but because he can be fully open to the consequences of each of his actions and correct them if they prove to be less than satisfying.
He is more able to experience all of his feelings, and is less afraid of any of his feelings; he is his own sifter of evidence, and is more open to evidence from all sources; he is completely engaged in the process of being and becoming himself, and thus discovers that he is soundly and realistically social; he lives more completely in this moment, but learns that this is the soundest living for all time. He is becoming a more fully functioning organism, and because of the awareness of himself which flows freely in and through his experience, he is becoming a more fully functioning person.

The 'good life' is a direction

Rogers explained that happiness (or 'the good life') is a process; a direction that you pursue when you feel psychologically free. A process of becoming a more well-rounded and socially-conscious person.

It's a fairly compelling concept and if anyone was precognitive, it was Rogers. He wrote this down fully 40 years before the socially-responsible and well-being driven market was identified. Now that market is worth as much as $300bn in the U.S. alone and represents almost 20% of any given national population.

It's not surprising that the concept, in it's more common watered-down variety, is so popular then. As usual, philosophical psychology brings out those inner truths. And whether Rogers was the first person to come up with it or not, certainly his argument is one of the most compelling. The 'good life' is a direction.

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