Everyone wants a good life, but half the battle is figuring out just what that entails. Should we aim for professional success, romantic relationships, or exciting experiences? Michael Bishop, philosophy professor at Florida State University and author of recently published book The Good Life, argues that we should forget about aiming towards any one goal.
Bishop has combined philosophy and psychology to come up with his “network theory” of happiness, arguing that well-being is a condition that tends to perpetuate itself.
There are several tenets that contribute to happiness, Bishop writes in his book, including: positive feelings such as joy, positive attitudes such as optimism, positive traits such as friendliness, and accomplishments such as strong relationships and professional success.
Well-being, he says, cannot be attributed to any one of these characteristics, but exists when they come together in a cycle that builds on itself.
For example: Curiosity, optimism, confidence, social support, friendliness leads to professional success which then leads to income, recognition, and further optimism, confidence, and social support.
Bishop tells Quartz that, while one positive element is well and good, it’s not enough to create happiness.
“If you think about well-being as just one feature of the network, such as success or pleasure or even love, you get into a disappointment trap. Either you don’t achieve the goal, in which case you’re disappointed. Or you do achieve the goal in which case it is what you expected but you eventually adapt and suffer what I call the Peggy Lee problem, which is the ‘Is this all there is problem?” Or else it’s not everything you hoped it would be, and you’re still disappointed.”
Just as there are positive networks, it’s also possible to fall into a negative network—as anyone who’s suffered from depression or anxiety will know.
“If you’re ever in a blue period, you feel sad and lonely and this leads to life trouble,” says Bishop. “You maybe don’t do as well at work, you have failures in your relationships, you have trouble sleeping. These failings in turn lead you to be more unhappy.”
But Bishop says that identifying positive networks makes it easier to build them and avoid negative pitfalls. For example, an enjoyment-mastery-success cycle, where “you enjoy an activity, you get better at it, you have some success with it, and the success brings you more enjoyment,” is one way to create well-being.
Another option is an interpersonal positive groove. Bishop says that people who are in good relationships tend to improve their relationship skills, which in turn makes their relationships even better. “People who tend to be happier and more upbeat tend to be more successful in relationships. They’re more likely to be generous towards other people, who will in turn be more positive and generous towards them,” he adds. Positive relationships also create social capital, which can be leveraged to provide even more good things.
Bishop’s theory on well-being means there’s no one set of instructions that can help everyone build happiness. “The advice you’d offer a 25 year old athlete would be different to the advice you’d offer a sprightly octogenarian,” he says. But regardless of circumstances, the important thing is to build positive networks.
And it could even be possible to buy Christmas presents to help promote well-being. “Something that can get someone into an enjoyment-mastery-success cycle is always a good gift,” says Bishop. “So cleats for your favorite soccer player.”
Helping someone develop an interpersonal positive cycle could be more difficult, but there are still options, says Bishop. A tandem bicycle might help a relationship, he suggests—or perhaps a sex toy. It might not guarantee happiness, but the path to well-being has to start somewhere.