The SPIRE Model of Happiness

Co-founders of the Wholebeing Institute, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and Megan McDonough, studied positive psychology (the science of happiness) for decades before postulating the SPIRE model—a five-pronged approach to foster lifelong learning with the ultimate aim of leading a life of greater satisfaction.

Throughout their research, they found that most pursuers of happiness fell into the same logistical fallacy: the idea that a "happy life" means being happy all the time. Ben-Shahar (2021) argues that the best way to achieve happiness is the pursuit of antifragility—a term originally coined by statistician Nassim Taleb (2016)—which essentially boils down to a stronger form of resilience. If resilience is the effective coping and acceptance of painful emotions to minimize their hindrance to healthy functioning and preserve one's homeostasis, then antifragility is the embrace of painful emotions coupled with post-traumatic growth. Just as muscles can endure more and more stress if properly trained, the mind can as well. Antifragility is the payoff from training our minds to be happy; it raises the threshold of what hurts so that fewer things will.

What conditions can you put in place to increase the likelihood of growing from hardship?

Iris Mauss et. al. (2012) add that pursuing happiness is paradoxical, arguing that there is an intrinsic tension between valuing happiness, setting a standard for how much happiness one should obtain, and then feeling disappointed when that standard is not reached. Mauss labels this series of cognitive steps a meta-emotion because the state of discontent (output) is in direct conflict with the value of happiness (input). Therefore, pursuing happiness directly creates a self-defeating situation, where the more we value it, the less likely we are to obtain it. Mauss tested this in a study among women who had experienced high vs. low levels of stress throughout the past 18 months and found that women with low stress who valued happiness experienced a similar hedonic balance to women with extremely high levels of stress (i.e. recent loss of a job, moving away from loved ones, and even the death of a friend). Similarly, the same women with low levels of stress who valued happiness experienced similar levels of depression to women with high levels of stress.

Ben-Shahar used Mauss et. al's findings to postulate that in order to increase levels of happiness effectively, it must be pursued "indirectly". In the same way that sunlight is good for us, staring directly at the sun will burn our eyes. However, if sunlight is broken down into its constituents, we see the colors of the rainbow and can enjoy it for as long as we please. Subsequently, after identifying five components that embody the spectrum of an individual's well-being—the metaphorical "rainbow of happiness"—he developed the SPIRE model of happiness:

  • Spiritual: What gives you purpose and meaning? What values drive your actions?

  • Physical: How do you cultivate positive regard for the body, treat it well, and be aware of the innate ability of the body to affect the mind?

  • Intellectual: What are the ways you stretch, grow, and challenge the mind by cultivating creativity and fostering the love of learning?

  • Relational: How do you contribute to and benefit from the people around you? What are the ways you foster a healthy relationship with yourself?

  • Emotional: How can you increase pleasurable emotions and cultivate resilience to deal with painful emotions? How do you express gratitude?

Ben-Shahar concludes that pursuing these individual aspects of happiness is the loophole to increasing overall levels of happiness without falling into the paradox that Mauss et. al. forewarned. What do you think? How much do you consciously value happiness? Do you find it bolsters or hinders your opportunities for growth? How could addressing growth in these five arenas specifically potentiate vitality and well-being in your life?


  1. Ben-Shahar, T. (2021). Happier, no matter what: Finding pleasure and purpose in hard times. Experiment LLC.

  2. Mauss, I. B., Savino, N. S., Anderson, C. L., Weisbuch, M., Tamir, M., & Laudenslager, M. L. (2012). The pursuit of happiness can be lonely. Emotion, 12(5), 908–912.

  3. Taleb, N. (2016). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House.