Laying a Foundation
Happiness is a massively popular subject these days. Just type the word “happiness” into the search bar of Amazon and you’ll find over 93,000 titles reflecting the topic in some form or fashion. Why this apparent obsession with happiness? Perhaps it’s because, despite living in a prosperous nation and having the freedom to “pursue happiness” envisioned by our founding fathers, for many Americans the “inalienable right” of personal happiness remains elusive.
A popular Christian response to this “happiness mania” is that, while happiness is emotion-based and fleeting, for believers choosing joy seems a more Biblical option. And this would be a fine resolution too, if less-than-joyful Christians were uncommon in our modern culture. But it’s quite apparent that we as Christians also struggle to live the kind of joyful lives we claim to believe in.
Positive Psychology to the Rescue?
For my part, I’m especially joyful when modern science stumbles upon and affirms ancient Biblical wisdom. Around 30 years ago psychologist Martin Seligman asked a brilliant question. Why not take all the academic rigor and scholarship employed to study aberrant psychology over the past 60 years, and use it to study those who are thriving, well-adjusted and happy? The result is an ever-growing field that today is known as Positive Psychology. And while to modern ears the findings sound innovative and revolutionary, in almost every case, they resonate profoundly with Biblical truth.
The Three Kind of Happiness
In a popular TED talk titled “The New Era of Positive Psychology” Seligman unpacks several current discoveries in happiness research. In doing so, he distills three distinct types of happiness: meaning, engagement and pleasure.
- Meaning refers to the significance and satisfaction one experiences through serving and meeting the needs of others. This often refers to involvement in projects “bigger than yourself” and typically includes acts of philanthropy or other types of volunteerism and charitable work. The words “significance” and “satisfaction” and “self-denial” reflect this category of happiness. The impact of these kinds of experiences on personal happiness is at once profound and long-lasting.
- Engagement refers to the “flow” state experienced by a person who is functioning in their areas of strength and gifting, according to their unique design. This kind of activity also involves high levels of absorption and focus. For this person “time can stand still” and upon task completion, they often discover they have more energy than when they started.
- Pleasure. Popularly thought of as vital to happiness, pleasurable experiences are actually the least consequential. This category refers to the sensory pleasures and positive emotions typically associated with living a happy life. Words like “savoring” and “mindfulness” are common when discussing this category. Seligman states that, while pleasure is poor as a stand-alone trait, it does function well as a final touch, when added to a foundation of the other two types of happiness.
A fourth element of a happy life, though not directly causal according to Seligman, is having a rich repertoire of positive relationships. This characteristic is seen as the best atmosphere for the other kinds of happiness to thrive in, and is a typical outcome of the collective application of the three happiness types.
Coaching the Happiness Quadrant
As I studied Seligman’s findings it occurred to me that, if his recipe for happiness was both effective and essentially Biblical, the implications for me as a Christian life coach and for my clients could be profound. As I began to wrestle these ideas, I came up with what I call The Happiness Quadrant, a Biblical coaching framework designed to explore and ultimately enhance personal happiness.
The Happiness Quadrant is a relatively simple coaching conversation consisting of four basic questions. Each question incorporates a central concept (underlined). I also consistently use the words “stretch you” as I have found this helps the client choose action steps that are both doable, but also just beyond their “comfort zone.”
Quadrant 1- Relationship: What step or steps might you take that would both stretch you and intensify/deepen your personal relationship with God and others?
The Bible affirms the importance of cultivating a rich repertoire of human relationships both within and beyond the Body of Christ. While Seligman affirms the importance of relationships to personal happiness, the one flaw in his model from my perspective is the vital task of establishing a personal relationship with God. James reminds us that “if we draw near to God, He will draw near to us (Ja. 4:8a). In my experience when I put God where He belongs (on the throne of my life), I then discover that I too am where I belong. I’m reminded of the passage in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.”
Quadrant 2 – Design: How are you uniquely wired? What action steps might you choose that would stretch you to both discover and apply your unique gifts and strengths?
This question reflects Seligman’s concept of “flow.” It is no secret that we find the greatest satisfaction when we function according to our natural gifting. Paul reminds us that “since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly” (Rom. 12:6) It’s clear that each person is blessed by the Creator with unique gifts and strengths, ready to be explored and applied. There are many “gift inventories” available that enable both coach and client to explore this issue. From a Christian perspective I’m reminded that we serve the “God of the fingerprint.” According to the psalmist God “saw our unformed substance” and we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14,16)
Quadrant 3 – Meaning: What actions might you take (reflecting God’s plan and your design) that would stretch you to better serve and meet the needs of others?
This question focuses on meaningful service as a fundamental source of personal happiness. It is a paradox to the natural mind that, as we give our lives away in the service of others, we find personal significance and fulfillment. Many today are reaching mid-life only to discover their deep hunger for this kind of investment of their time and energies. Jesus Himself said that true greatness is found in serving and that “…even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:26-28)
Quadrant 4 – Blessing: What steps might stretch you to be more intentional to enjoy and celebrate the blessings, pleasures and meaning God sends into your life?
This question encourages the client to “stop and smell the roses.” That is, we must savor and celebrate the many blessings in our lives intentionally and often. Considering our natural tendency to quickly become acclimated to our blessings, this is an important directive. The vast benefits of daily expressions of gratitude have been well documented in the Positive Psychology movement. And yet, while counting our blessings is certainly better than ignoring them, I believe considering the Source of our blessings is vital. Generally overlooked by the Popular Psychology movement is this most important aspect of gratitude: acknowledging the ultimate Source of blessing! Am I just supposed to be generally thankful? Or is there Someone behind it all? Someone Whom I should personally thank? I’m reminded of the first line of The Doxology, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.”
In closing, as I have experimented with Coaching The Happiness Quadrant I have discovered it is more than a quadrant. It is also a continuum. That is, one can revisit the journey from Relationship to Design to Meaning to Blessing many times over, in an ever-deepening spiral of action steps and personal growth.
I hope this post has been helpful to you in your coaching journey. As a special bonus I’m including The Happiness Quadrant Infographic. Just click on the link! If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. I’d love to hear from you!