What is Happiness? The Emotional Quality Model

Scott’s Note: This is a lengthier and more in-depth entry than some of my more recent posts. Just a heads up if you were used to the quick lists of tips and 700 word articles.

I’ve found most people deem the way to get happiness is by improving life quality. This means that the way to get happy is through making improvements in life areas: health, relationships, finances, etc. Who wouldn’t be happy with a million bucks, a gorgeous wife and six pack abs?

Some people debate which aspect of life quality is most important to happiness (“money can’t buy happiness,” or, “relationships are crucial.”) But few people I’ve met would argue that it isn’t some combination of life quality that makes happiness. This may not work in every case, but I believe most people work with the assumption that some measure of external or personal improvement creates happiness.

Life Quality Versus Emotional Quality

I’d like to argue an alternative method of achieving happiness that is different from the life quality model. This is the emotional quality model. Instead of focusing on life quality (healthy, money, relationships, etc.) this model focuses on the quality your emotional life, (adventure, challenge, love, etc.)

I’ll argue how I feel the emotional quality model is far more accurate in creating genuine happiness than the life quality model. Second I’ll try to argue why I think few people are going to follow my advice, even if they agree with me.

In order to really understand which model of happiness works better, I think it is important to see what happiness is.

What is Happiness? Happiness Isn’t One Emotion

Happiness is like the color red. It is intuitively obvious but almost impossible to describe without referencing itself. Usually attempts to pin it down result in something pretty vague like, “Happiness means feeling good.”

I think one of the reasons philosophers have had so much trouble pinning down happiness is because it isn’t one thing, but many. Consider some of the things a person might describe as “feeling happy.”

  • I felt happy after finishing the last page of my novel.
  • I was so happy to spend some time with my friends.
  • I couldn’t feel happier as my parachute opened and I looked down on the world.
  • I felt happy when he lost the promotion, after the way he treated me.
  • I was so happy I rolled over and felt like having a smoke.

The problem is that happiness is rarely an emotion itself, but more of a general indicator of the quality of your emotions. I doubt most people would say a post-coital cigarette feels the same as getting your book finished or a bit of schadenfreude, but depending on the situation they all could make the person happy.

In reality I don’t think happiness is one emotional state, but the overall quality of many different emotions. Pride, joy, pleasure, catharsis, adventure, fulfillment and caring are just a few of the emotions that form components of happiness.

Emotional Quality Model – A.K.A Enlightened Hedonism

Hedonism is the philosophy of pursuing pleasure as a primary goal. The problem with hedonism is that pleasure is only one component of happiness. Although pleasure is readily attainable, it is fleeting. Through only seeking pleasure you ignore the more difficult to obtain emotions.

Hedonism is to the emotional quality model as someone who hordes money at the expense of personal relationships is to the life quality model. By only focusing on one area (in this case pleasure) you wear out the benefits of that experience and become profoundly unhappy.

Enlightened hedonism recognizes that happiness has many different emotional states. Instead of focusing on one to the neglect of the others, you aim for variety and depth in your experiences. Instead of making life entirely about challenge or love or adventure, you mix the components of each to create happiness.

What the emotional quality model suggests is that external rewards are secondary to emotional quality. This means that the reason to start a business wouldn’t be to make a lot of money, get prestige or save the world. Instead you would focus on the emotional variety and depth that decision would create.

So you would start a business because starting a business would result in feelings of challenge, achievement, pride, compassion or excitement. Here are two graphs demonstrating the different benefits to perceived happiness following the models.

Here is the benefits over time of starting a business to the life quality model:

Life Quality Decision

And here are the benefits over time to starting a business to the emotional quality model:

Emotional Quality Decision

Emotional Quality is a More Realistic Representation of Happiness

The problem with the life quality model is that it doesn’t work very well. Countless anecdotal evidence and research points out how profoundly bad we are at determining what will make us happy. Look at these examples that the life quality model fails to explain but emotional quality model explains perfectly:

  • Many successful entrepreneurs say that they were happiest when they were just starting. This is the time when they were often working the hardest and had the least tangible success. But it was also the time with the most hope, challenge and excitement.
  • Research has shown that, although more money can buy happiness when moving out of extreme poverty (switching your emotions from survival to comfort), beyond a very low limit it has almost no impact on life happiness.
  • Many people in poor life situations (conjoined twins, permanent physical disabilities) report almost the same level of happiness as regular people.

The only places that the life quality model can explain happiness is when it intersects with the emotional quality model. Personal relationships are aspects of the life quality model that fit closely with the emotional quality model. Having loving and caring relationships, usually fits with the high quality emotions of love, caring, and empathy.

Using the Emotional Quality Model

I suspect some of you may have felt like I was making a long point out of something fairly obvious. I expect to hear, “Isn’t the emotional quality model just another way of describing happiness? You are basically saying that happiness will predict happiness. Duh!

The real problem in getting happiness has been that it is too complex to tackle directly. The life quality model assumes that some external aspect of quality creates happiness and therefore tries to maximize it. The emotional quality model doesn’t make that assumption and instead breaks happiness into component emotions with the emphasis that you should strive for variety and depth.

It is a lot easier to answer what will make you feel challenge, pleasure or satisfaction than it will to make you feel happy. Using the emotional quality model means breaking down happiness into components that are easier to tackle. The decisions I make within this model are to somehow increase the depth of one quality emotion or to seek variety.

What About the Long-Term?

I think another mistake people will make when using the emotional quality model is to assume that all emotions are immediate and don’t require work. You know intuitively that this isn’t true. Fulfillment doesn’t have a switch in your head you can just turn on and off, it takes a fair amount of build up. Some emotions can be gained easily, but others require considerable investment before you can get more depth.

Just like people invest money to have more later with the life quality model, you can do that with the emotional quality model too. You can endure a bit of short-term struggle if the balance of good emotion will increase in the long-run. But because you aren’t usually waiting for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you will probably find ways to increase the quality of your emotions along the way instead of just at the end.

Emotional Quality Decision
Look again at this diagram representing the decision to start a business. While the life quality model assumes most the payoff is near the end, here the payoff is spread more evenly. There are short-term dips, but there isn’t a long delay before you can start feeling happy. In fact, many decisions like these are slightly top-heavy giving more happiness initially then they do after years of work.

Decision making to the life quality model is like betting on a horse race. You aren’t exactly sure which horse will win, but you’re hoping for a big payoff if you’re right. The decision making attempts are often wildly bottom heavy, where initial sacrifice is necessary for possible payoff.

The emotional quality model is more like eating a chocolate cake. You decide to eat the cake and start receiving the benefits immediately. As you get through the cake, the layer of icing may give way to a spongy center, followed by a rich chocolate base. The benefits are spread out but they aren’t the same at different periods of time.

Why I Don’t Think People Will Use This Model

I’ve just given an explanation of how the emotional quality model works, but I still don’t think people will follow it, even if they agree with it. This is because of two reasons, one is troubling and the other terrifies most people.

1) People Want Tangible Motives

The purpose of the emotional quality model isn’t to sell all your worldly possessions and to float around chasing one whim after another. The only purpose the emotional quality model serves is to point out where it differs from the strategy most people are using. This means that if a decision you make will improve some artificial aspect of life quality but it won’t improve variety or depth of quality emotions, don’t bother. Working more at a job you hate to get a few extra dollars, staying in a relationship without love or even retiring from work if it will just leave you bored are pointless under this new model.

Despite this utility, I think most people will still use the life quality model first because it is tangible. There is something more solid about money, social networks or being attractive rather than the emotions they are supposed to create. Because they appear more real, people will end up chasing them as a means to get what they really want.

2) You Are Already Close to Maximum Happiness

This is the part of the emotional quality model that scares the hell out of most people. When you view your ideal life as being something far away, that gives you comfort in holding it as a fantasy image. Seeing that you could begin to make decisions that would create payoffs tomorrow that shatters this fantasy image.

The idea that you would be perfectly happy with a beautiful spouse, millions of dollars, exotic adventures and tremendous service seems distant and rosy. I think the biggest problem with the emotional quality model is that it shatters this notion and basically points out that you are almost already there. I think the perceived loss of this fantasy of a perfect life is probably one of the biggest reasons there will be resistence.

What do you think about this approach to happiness? Sadly this is a topic that I can’t really do justice in a single blog post, so I may have to spend a few more clearing it up. I welcome every piece of criticism and each comment, so feel free to join in the discussion.

  • Eduardo

    I’ve spend a long time writing and researching on happiness and abundance (the theme of my blog). This article is one the most intelligent and thought provoking ideas I’ve come across in a long time. I’m amazed one so young is the one to put it out into the universe. Congratulations! I will be happily forwarding your idea to others who share our interest in the topic.


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  • Richard

    Thank you, Scott. This is a wonderful article that really made me look at my own way of achieving happiness, and really question whether that is an accurate way of doing so. I hope you follow up here because this is a very intriguing topic that I think many people will want to know more about.

  • Richard

    Sorry, i just commented for the first time and i don’t know if it went through or not.
    Anyways this is a great article, it’s really thought provoking and goes beyond most western ideas of happiness. I really appreciate your courage for going outside the cookie-cutter self improvement ideas that are so ever-present in our world. i just discovered this gem of a website and i look forward to finding many more worthwhile ideas through your blog. Thank you.

  • Mark

    Hmmm, it doesn’t seem right that emotional quality makes maximum happiness any more immediate. Particularly because, as you said, “some emotions … require considerable investment before you can get more depth.”

    It seems to me that reaching a significant milestone on the emotional quality path could take just as long as on the life quality path, and therefore both could seem equally distant and rosy at the start.

    Someone in the midst of chronic depression is certainly not “almost already there.” And even someone who is much closer may still have a long way to go. I consider myself in that group; I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to improve the quality of my emotions and I’m seeing results, but it’s slow and steady, with a long way still to go.

    However I do agree that tangible goals are more motivational.

    I also agree 100% that greater happiness will come from higher quality of emotions rather than situational, context-bound aspects of life. Circumstances change; grounding one’s happiness in something which may or may not be there in the near future seems, in this rapidly changing world, a sure way to end up depressed.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone.


    With the emotional quality model your goal is both variety and depth. Certain emotions might require work, but the decisions that lead to them invariably create different positive emotions along the way.

    Let me explain. If you set a goal to write a novel, the feeling of pride/accomplishment may take a few months. But the feelings of challenge/optimism are fairly immediate. If those emotions are of a high quality, this means the level of happiness gained from the initial decision of writing a novel is spread out from the beginning to the end, just in different forms.

    No, this isn’t a cure for depression, but nothing is an instant cure. It is just one more lens from which to view the world and make decisions.


  • Mark

    Ahh yes, I see, thanks Scott. The average degree of happiness would be more constant across the entire endeavour, but the type of happiness would change over time.

    I’m still having trouble seeing how that could be fearsome. Unless it’s the realisation that some aspects of happiness are immediately available if only one puts in immediate effort. And it’s the effort that people fear. Yet that seems better than the alternative, the warm fuzzy fantasy, which also requires effort to realise.

  • pHysiX

    nice stuff mate. I cannot say that I have found happiness for sure. I reckon I never will until just that one day when I can share it with someone who will cherish me and vice versa.

    I like the way you think. I can never express myself easily but you seem to speak on my behalf…(don’t want to be selfish)

    Great work anyway mate and keep things up!

    Best wishes

  • Joanne

    Scott, I want to thank you for this article. I believe you have hit on something very important. I believe when you begin to find happiness in the way you describe, through your Emotional Quality Model, you begin to live a more soulful existence. Our souls care nothing about the type of car we drive, how smart we are or how much money we have. But following what makes us truly happy – that which has emotional depth and variety has a good chance of leading us right into our life’s purpose.

  • Ron

    Scott, I don’t know if you are still reading responses to the blog since it is a couple years old. But I want to congratulate you on this article. It’s very informed, wise and is full of common sense. I have been going through Therapy for depression for about 10 years, and in the process have read countless psychology and philosophy books on related topics. I have a decent job, nice family and a master’s degree…but still depressed.

    Tonight I was soul searching, trying to gain self awareness of my minds methods and emotions I have suppressed. I was merely seeking relief from my symptoms. What happened, after examining each emotion, careful to not re-repress it, another would come along. Then came love, something I quit expressing years ago. I was reminded of my childhood days when I actually felt the emotion of love toward my family, and I let that feeling rise up in me as I lay there through this exercise.

    Then something unexpected happened: I realized I was suddenly feeling…Happy. The warm, positive, cheerful, tangible feeling of happiness. I was simply looking for relief, and then….happiness? I didn’t even think to hope for that. I had forgotten that it was an actual emotion, a real feeling.

    What should happen after that but I search the web for a couple related key words and I come across your blog.

    I’m commenting for two reasons: It validated what I had just experienced; and, I believe it validated your hypothesis.

    Great, impressive work, especially for someone as young as you are (although you are older now than when you wrote this). Anyway, thanks for such a brilliant peice of work.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Ron! Not too many people dig as deep in the archives