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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

The Happiness Continuum: Happy, Happier, Happiest

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

By Lynn Cukaj, ATR-BC

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers and Adults

Happiness is a continuum. A continuum that ranges between the feelings of being untroubled or pleased to the feeling of being absolutely ecstatic. Expanded, centered, and constricted are existential terms related to how we become more self-aware. Expanded is the highest level, centered is midpoint, and constricted is the lowest. In terms of the Happiness Continuum, the expansion of happiness would result in feelings of ecstasy and elation. Being centered results in feelings of content and delight and the constriction of happiness is when one feels untroubled.

Interestingly, the words along the continuum are all synonyms for the word happy yet they have different meanings. When you think of an ecstatic or elated person, what comes to mind? Pleased or untroubled? Delighted? These words are attached to different feelings yet they are all part of the Happiness Continuum. To me, pleased and untroubled individuals seem to be fine with their lives and are ok with living in the status quo. But if constriction is the lowest part of the Happiness Continuum, it would mean that an individual who is pleased or untroubled may be living a passive life without any passions or need for connection. The status quo may be an OK place to be, but over time, would living the status quo give a person a true sense of happiness in their life and fulfillment of their authentic self? It is not to say that being pleased is less-than or wrong; for some individuals they may thrive with a pleased, untroubled barometer of happiness and that works for them. The key is to determine what works for you.

How do you think a person who feels pleased or untroubled views life versus a person who views life through an ecstatic lens? Is there a difference?

Happiness & Self-Awareness

The belief of obtaining happiness is based on the idea that if we are self-aware, we are happy and have discovered the meaning of life. Is this idea true to you? A practitioner of mindfulness and emotion regulation will experience feelings of content, delight, and fullness.

But if we expand on the feeling of happiness, an individual will feel ecstatic and elated. Ecstatic is not manic but rather an individual with a high sense of self-awareness. Ecstatic people are good at problem solving, have good judgment, and move forward in the world with assertion. They are motivated and more willing to take positive risks that may increase their happiness in life. An ecstatic person will take advantage of work or personal opportunities because they have a growth mindset.

On the other end of the spectrum, a person with a pleased or untroubled perspective may view opportunities as potential situations that will shake up their homeostasis. This could make them unwilling to increase their opportunities to experience more happiness.

The goal is to move along the continuum and not stay on one side, which could have a negative impact on your self-awareness over time.

Personally, I function better if I push myself beyond my comfort zone to achieve that feeling of elation. For example, the times I motivate myself to cook an elaborate meal rather than the usual standard dish. The feeling of success is ecstatic! This leads me to believe that feeling ecstatic about something has to do with the energy that is brought to the situation. To me, happiness is a warm blanket, a cuddle with a puppy or petting a furry cat, the smell of apple pie, or a sunny day. These are concrete things that help me appreciate the abstractness of happiness. Once we define and anchor our feeling of happiness, can we sit with that feeling, hold onto it and truly believe that we deserve it? Or is that something that only people with intact self-esteem and self-efficacy can experience?

Is self-esteem and self-efficacy tied to being happy?

Activity: Does your behavior reflect your values?

Taking a look at the Happiness Continuum, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Where do I stand on the Happiness Continuum?

  2. If I want to achieve the feeling of elation, can changing my approach to life and the decisions I make push the bar on the continuum towards feeling happier?

  3. Am I fine with just feeling pleased?

Once these questions are answered in an honest way, consider how your behavior and values are impacting your happiness. Start by asking yourself the following question: What do I value?

Step 1: Using one color pen, rate (not rank) each of following Personal Values below on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most important. If you are having trouble with rating, mindfulness and here & now meditative techniques can help you understand and identify your priorities and values in a realistic way.

Personal Values

  • Family (other than marriage and parenting)

  • Intimate relationships (partners, marriage)

  • Parenting

  • Work

  • Friends/Social life

  • Education/Training

  • Recreation/Fun

  • Spirituality growth/Mindfulness

  • Citizenship/Community life

  • Physical self-care

Step 2. Make a list of decisions you had to make in the last week and then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Were you able to make everything you rated a 10 a top priority?

  • What influenced those decisions?

  • How did those choices impact your happiness and your place on the happiness continuum?

It is reasonable to think that outside factors beyond our control impact choices we make. However, it is important to reflect on the choices we make that impact our behavior, resulting in us having to compromise our values, shifting us down the Happiness Continuum.

Step 3: Using a different color pen, rank each Personal Value based on your decisions and actions from the past week.

Is there a discrepancy?

Closing the gap will result in an increased feeling of self-esteem and happiness, as you begin to live a life aligned with your values without compromise.

The key in this activity is to have a balance.

The areas of life that you value need to reflect the quality of life and level of happiness that you are working toward. For example, if you highly value you family (other than marriage and parenting) do your consistent actions reflect its importance? In order to maintain certain personal values at a 10, you may need to prioritize other values that are not high on your list. For example, if you are looking to prioritize your mindfulness and spiritual growth, you may need to make meditation more of a priority in your daily activities. If physical or self-care are rated low, then think of activities you can do during the day that will allow you to take better care of your body.

If you approach life in a meaningful way that speaks to your values, then resulting behaviors will fall into place. It is important to note that what you value and how you place it in the importance rating will greatly depend on what stage of life you are in. Our values change over time and this is an exercise that can be practiced often to gain insight into our journey through life.

How do you want to live your life?


For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here:

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