What we can learn from happiness research – or the evolution of our zentor model for happiness and a fulfilling life

When you walk into a bookstore today, you will usually find entire bookshelves full of self-help guides for more happiness in life. It seems that many of us are in search of happiness, of fulfillment, of purpose. And preferably, we want a shortcut to get there. But which one to take? Many of the guides we have looked at so far are rather disappointing. But what separates the wheat from the chaff? Most importantly, we should chose an approach that suits us, because happiness is something very individual. At zentor we try to concentrate on approaches that have a clear foundation in research, i.e. are evidence-based.

When we speak of fulfillment or happiness in life, there are basically two different approaches that can be traced back to ancient philosophy.

On the one hand hedonism, i.e. happiness in the form of pleasure, reward or generally maximizing positive emotions and avoiding pain. Its origin is usually attributed to the philosopher Aristippos of Cyrene. On the other hand, there is eudaimonia which goes back to Socrates or rather Aristotle and others, where happiness means to live a successful life in the sense of “virtuous” or ethical-moral action. Most of us know the comforts of a hedonistically oriented life – and our conception of society and economic model favor it. Somewhat more difficult is eudaimonia, because it often needs a certain effort to find the right way and some pain to follow it. However, a purely hedonistic life can often feel empty, so it is all the more important to take into account the ancient knowledge of eudaimonia for a fulfilled life – much of which is reflected in current research of positive psychology and neurology.

Our approach at zentor rather follows the eudaimonic tradition – without forgetting hedonism – and combines old philosophical ideas with modern empirical findings. And in those we can found an astonishing number of similarities. Many of them have already been known for thousands of years by Far Eastern religions, traditions of indigenous people and philosophers of the ancient times. Unfortunately, there are no real shortcuts on the way to fulfillment – but there are some interesting approaches that make the search for happiness a little easier. At zentor, we have assembled the most important of the approaches into a combined model, which allows us to apply these scientifically based findings well in practice. If you are interested: In another article, we go deeper into the foundations of or model, and we also have summarized key insights in a video for you.

To save you a lengthy scientific lecture, here is the summary: In our model, we essentially combine philosophical considerations on meaning and transcendence from Aristotle to Maslow, the PERMA model from the positive psychology of Martin Seligman and ideas from a Design Thinking approach. This combination allows us to work evidence-based and to continuously improve the model in cooperation with research institutions. In our opinion, the three most important sources for moments of joy or happiness are purpose, engagement and appreciation.

  • We find purpose by applying our best Self (especially our strengths and values) for a greater good, i.e. by engaging with things that extend beyond ourselves (cognitive level).
  • We feel engagement or enthusiasm for activities that we like and that we are good at, because they give us the necessary energy and motivation to stay active. (motivational level).
  • As social beings we seek appreciation, i.e. positive feedback from fellow human beings to whom we feel somehow connected – and we gladly give it back (emotional & social level).

Fulfillment or happiness is not a state of mind, but rather an ongoing process. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to serve happiness on a silver platter. The world around us changes and we also change, so we should actively shape our lives and try out new ideas from time to time to stay fulfilled in the long run. The search for (eudaimonic) meaning or purpose often gives us the biggest headache – no wonder, given these considerations happen on the cognitive level. But the other two sources of happiness – engagement and appreciation – are also part of a fulfilled life and work more on the hedonistic level, as they can provide good humor and positive energy. You can find out for yourself, which of the three sources is the most important to you, and how your sense of happiness develops over time using our zentor Purpose Score, a survey originally developed and scientifically validated by us.

To illustrate our model for fulfillment, we like to use the following form of representation:

Moments of joy or happiness in the zentor model for a fulfilled life

With the big circle, we show on one hand that the three sources are not the only ones for moments of happiness. Some indulgence, experiences of success, gratitude, sex and other positive emotions play a role as well. On the other hand, we believe that in an ideally fulfilled life the three main sources should not exist independently of each other – therefore we show them as overlapping circles.

According to our definition, moments of happiness occur when our expectations are met or exceeded by our experienced reality. Therefore, in our model, reality and expectation appear to the left and to the right of the moments of happiness – to represent this continuous comparison. In addition, our experience of happiness depends on individual factors and on our environment. Our combined model represents this as follows:

zentor model for a fulfilling life

The following factors are therefore important to allow for more moments of happiness in our lives:

  • Individual factors such as our character, will, motivation, abilities, health, etc. – whereby our values and strengths play a special role.
  • The perception of our reality, because it is strongly influenced by our attention and various pitfalls of our perception
  • Our expectations, which we can and should control actively
  • External factors like our environment, a functioning society, etc.

All these factors help us to integrate more moments of happiness into a fulfilling life. And each of these factors can be influenced, trained or strengthened by various techniques.

By the way, the combined model is the basis for all offers and products we develop at zentor, and we continuously do research on improving our model in cooperation with universities like the TU Munich and the LMU. If you are interested in further information, please register for our newsletter – we will keep you up to date with inspiring contents and fascinating insights!

Sources and hints for further reading

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54(10), 821–827. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.54.10.821
  • Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302–317. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.10.4.302
  • Maslow, A. (1978). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (Esalen books), 501(c).
  • Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466
  • Seligman, M. (2017). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
  • Wolf, U. (n.d.). Aristoteles, Nikomachian Ethic Retrieved from https://www.rowohlt.de/fm/39/Aristoteles_Nikomach.pdf