The Yielded Life

In Authentic Happiness (2002), Martin Seligman identifies three pathways to happiness: the Pleasant Life, the Engaged Life, and the Meaningful Life. While these are powerful pathways to consider in the quest for happiness, the question may arise whether there are any paths besides these three.

Seligman at times has talked about the Victorious Life (or the Life of Achievement) as a possible fourth pathway. I would like to suggest another candidate here. At first blush, it may seem like the pathway I propose is the antithesis of the Victorious Life, but I think more careful investigation will show that these two pathways are intertwined with each other—and to some degree, with each of the others, as well.

The pathway to happiness I would like to consider here is the Yielded Life, or the Life of Submission. This pathway to happiness involves giving ourselves up in some way, as well as acceptance and perhaps resignation. Persons walking this path can choose to yield their lives in a variety of ways, some no doubt much more healthy than others. Persons may choose to yield themselves to God, to some larger cause, to a political power, to fate, to another person, and so on.

The number of people who seek happiness in this way is very large. Indeed, a yielding of oneself to God and/or a renunciation of the world in some fundamental way seems to be a core component of most if not all religions. Many religions require a yielding of the self or ego, often in a way marked by a particular ritual.

Whether or not we are religious, living socially seems to require frequent yielding. We are required to submit to governmental authority. Marriage can be thought of as a social institution that requires two individuals to yield themselves to the other in a profound way as two become one. And just getting along with others in the world requires frequent accommodation to their needs and desires.

Even at a more basic, psychological level, yielding, submission, and acceptance are keys to happiness, and even health. Acceptance of the universe and our place in it, as well as of the setbacks and losses that inevitably come our way is something each of us must practice.

In his wonderful book The Conquest of Happiness (1930), Bertrand Russell includes a chapter on “Effort and Resignation.” He distinguishes between two different kinds of resignation. The first kind is rooted in despair. We can fall into this kind of resignation when we experience such a fundamental defeat in life that we don’t think we will ever be able to achieve any thing important again. If he were writing today, Russell might call this kind of resignation learned helplessness. This kind of resignation, of course, is not good, but he claims that the second kind of resignation is fundamental to happiness. This second kind of resignation is based on “unconquerable hope.” If our major purposes in life are thwarted, we can take comfort in our larger hopes for humanity—resigning ourselves to present losses, but consoling ourselves that future gains by others may yet achieve the intended results. If our secondary purposes in life are thwarted, we can resign ourselves to these defeats and still retain our happiness by focusing on those areas of our lives in which we have not been thwarted. To fixate on the defeat and thus allow it to destroy our happiness, Russell contends, is both unnecessary and unwise.

With the other pathways to happiness Seligman explores, it is possible to follow them well or poorly. Deeply savoring the joys of life can lead to happiness, while shortcuts to pleasure can lead to addiction; focusing on using one’s signature strengths more can lead to deep fulfillment, or it can divert one from acknowledging and repairing character flaws; using one’s signature strengths in the service of something larger than oneself can lead to deeply meaningful results, or (if the “something larger than oneself” is immoral), it can lead to the destruction of many. The case is similar with the Yielded Life. It is possible to yield oneself wisely and in that way to take steps toward happiness; or it is possible to yield oneself unwisely, to the wrong ideals, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons—and in that way contribute to the destruction of oneself and others.

Typically, it is fairly easy to follow one of these paths poorly. But to follow it well requires knowledge and practice. Seligman’s claim is that research in positive psychology can contribute to the knowledge and practical expertise required to walk these paths successfully. I want to claim something similar for the Yielded Life. And I want to encourage positive psychologists to find ways of studying this life empirically to make this knowledge and practical expertise available to all.

Russell, B. (1930). The conquest of happiness. New York: Liveright.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.