I’ve been thinking a lot lately about happiness; after all, as a clinical psychologist, helping my patients find a path to happiness is part of my job. And there have been many studies about what specific factors influence our happiness, looking at everything from salary to IQ.
But the true grandmaster of all happiness psychology is Abraham Maslow. He’s most famous today for introducing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which he claimed contained the key to the nature of true happiness and fulfillment. The basic idea of Maslow’s hierarchy is that we have different sets of needs which we have to satisfy. According to Maslow, some of these categories are more basic or fundamentally necessary than others. You should address each category in turn before moving on to the next level of needs—this is why it’s not Maslow’s Simple List of Needs. So Food and Shelter should take precedence over, say, finding true love (though maybe some of the modern romantics reading this will argue otherwise!) The highest, narrowest level—the tip of the pyramid—is “Self-Actualization”, which you can finally get over by reaching your fullest potential for yourself creatively. And after that, you’re done—you can now reap the benefits of a fully perfect, optimally happy life.
Seventy-one years later, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is still one of the cornerstones of the psychology of happiness. To this day it dominates the discussion on what it means to live a meaningful, rewarding life. And in my opinion, there is a better way to think about achieving happiness.
Hear me out. In my view, the implication of Maslow’s pyramid is that once you figure out with a given category of needs, it’s like you’re done with that category. Once you figure out how to feel safe, you can stop worrying about safety, and can move on to Love. And, the logic goes, once you figure out love, you can shift your focus to Esteem. Maslow’s hierarchy encourages you to think of happiness as a static and fixed structure, through which you progress from one level to the next until you reach the summit, at which you can just coast forever on your well-being.
The only problem is that happiness doesn’t work that way. Your life is a beautifully fluid experience, an elaborate, continually shifting flux of interwoven connections, and your needs for happiness shift right along with it, from one moment to the next. Which means that you can’t ever “figure out” Love or Health or Self-Esteem and then leave it aside while you tackle the next source of happiness. Instead, you have to work at each aspect every day, even after you’ve found it—especially if you’ve found it. Happiness isn’t a result that you work towards, it’s a process which you embody. And it doesn’t consist an arduous struggle against a huge, immobile set of obstacles: it lies instead in the tiny adjustments you can make as you move from one day to the next.
So happiness is not, in my view, a pyramid you have to climb. There is a more precise and motivating metaphor. I actually think it’s more like a guitar.
Again, hear me out. Over time, a guitar inevitably comes out of tune—not because it’s a bad guitar, but because that’s the nature of guitars. In fact, the key to maintaining a guitar is to notice when it’s not in tune and continually re-tune it—not set it on fire because it was out of tune – no offense, Jimi. Keeping a guitar well-calibrated involves a series of small tunings and re-tunings. It should be the same way with happiness: your happiness may fluctuate, it may even bottom out, but this doesn’t mean you should envision a huge insurmountable pyramid in which you need to reach the pinnacle of self-actualization for true happiness. It just means you need to adapt to your new equilibrium, to re-tune your inner guitar. That’s what happiness is—our ability to make the small but meaningful adaptations to whatever life throws at you.
In my own life, this approach has helped me better respond to situations when I fall short of my own personal goals. Lately I’ve been working on a book! Look out for it! Sorry to say its been delayed and at times the slow progress impacts my feelings of what I believe Dr. Maslow would call self-actualization
But instead, I took a step back and thought, “So I’ve come out of tune. But not a whole lot—I’ve been doing pretty well on the outline and proposal. So what can I do to get back on track?” The answer, of course, was to continue working on a small part of the introduction. And quietly, this little setback only sharpened my resolve continue moving forward.
I encourage you to see being happy not as an insurmountable pyramid you climb once and then forget about, but more like an inner guitar which you can tune slightly better each day. If you can work at thinking of happiness in this way, you’ll be astonished by how approachable it becomes: how simple it becomes to plant the seeds for it today and help it sprout tomorrow, and flower the day after that. And if you fall short, realize that although we may occasionally get “out of tune”, that’s no sign of weakness. If anything, our ability to tune ourselves back, to recover, to adapt, and then to improve our lives—believe it or not, that’s the secret source of our truest strength.
My recommendation to you is to get out there, reflect upon your lives, and start tuning your inner guitars. Your happiness awaits.