WE PROMISE: An Applied Theory of Happiness

WE PROMISE theory, developed by Kenneth Benjamin, is a practical, applied theory for happiness. It is a conceptual and applied construct based on the idea that happiness is derived from the fulfillment of universal human needs. It proposes that by taking conscious Action and by focusing that Action where the most benefit is to be had, greater Happiness can be achieved.

The WE PROMISE theory of happiness states:

1. Happiness is when your life fulfills your needs.

2. Those needs can be organized into 9 categories:

Wellbeing – mind-body connection
Environment – climate, beauty, your ‘space’
Pleasure – joy, fun, sex, positive emotions
Relationships – parents, spouses, friends, etc.
Outlook – self-control, adventurousness, optimism
Meaning – reason, goals, purpose, awareness
Involvement – action, challenge, creativity, flow
Success – learning, accomplishment, value
Elasticity – resiliency to inevitable troubles

3. Within each WE PROMISE category are specific Happiness Essentials, i.e. Healthy Diet (Wellbeing), Adventurousness (Outlook), or Overcoming Fear (Elasticity).

4. Each Happiness Essential can be tied to Actions you take in life, i.e. eating vegetables (Healthy Diet), travel to exotic locales (Adventurousness), or learning to recognize real vs. imaginary fears (Overcoming Fear).

5. While each of us has all 9 WE PROMISE needs and all the Happiness Essentials within, everyone varies with how strongly we feel each need.

(View the WE PROMISE and Happiness Essentials Quick Reference)

The Origins of WE PROMISE Happiness Theory

Mankind’s search for happiness and fulfillment stretches back to ancient times. One could argue that much of the underlying purpose of philosophy has been to help define the path to a more satisfying, fulfilling, and happy life experience.

That research, at first conducted through philosophical inquiry and insight, has begun to yield to the realm of scientific investigation. Human motivation theories, such as those by Dr. Abraham Maslow and his famous “Hierarchy of Needs“, the recent advent of the Positive Psychology movement advocated by Dr. Martin Seligman, and investigations into the neurobiological underpinnings of happiness, such as those undertaken by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, have confirmed, refined, and expanded the scope of what we know about happiness and the mind.

WE PROMISE theory derives its base from those varied sources and millennia of study. It neither diminishes nor replaces those theories, but subsumes them within its framework.

In addition, one cannot overlook the great world religions as a source of comfort and fulfillment for billions of people. By observing the functional, day-to-day processes that ordinary adherents experience in these long-established religions, we can discover useful, and universally applicable, traits that speak to our happiness needs.

WE PROMISE theory neither promotes, nor diminishes any religion but identifies the needs that well-established religions successfully fulfill.

WE PROMISE theory integrates this wide range of sources and forms its backbone from the intersections between them; from common wisdom, philosophical inquiry, world religions, psychology, to neurobiology.

The broad sweep of human culture provides significant validation of those intersections, whether from a survey of the self-help section of the book store, or from within the fantasy world of fiction.

Semantics and Overlapping Ideas

In the process of integration between such diversity of concept, a wide variety of terms were used to describe similar concepts. WE PROMISE theory has attempted to consolidate those ideas, some of which approach the problem of needs from oblique angles to others.

A necessary consequence is a certain degree of overlap between concepts and perspectives. What WE PROMISE theory attempts to do is sensibly organize all our universal human needs (principle 1) into broad categories (principal 2).

What is important is not the categories themselves, nor the order of them, but that all our universal human needs are adequately contained within the theory. The semantics are secondary to the intent and more a result of the conceptualization limitations of the human mind than a “true” representation of our universal needs. That “true” representation is probably best described by our genetics and developmental processes.

Since we cannot currently understand, nor apply, this genetically-based knowledge, we must settle for what the mind is capable of understanding and describing. WE PROMISE theory can fit that bill until such time that a more thorough understanding of the inner workings of our mind can replace it.

The semantics of the 9 WE PROMISE categories are as defined as they are to facilitate the mnemonic acronym “WE PROMISE”. The words chosen, Wellbeing, Environment, Pleasure, Relationships, Outlook, Meaning, Involvement, Success, and Elasticity, have other, perhaps sometimes conceptually more accurate, synonyms but the need for a way to remember nine terms trumps the need for a slightly better description.

Others have recognized this need, or not, and succeeded in becoming memorable, or not, as a result.

Dr. Maslow’s iconic pyramid is etched on the public consciousness, yet knowledge of all 5 (or 7) of his stages eludes all but those most familiar with his theory.

The needs theory of Manfred Max-Neef, who’s 9 categories of needs aligns well within WE PROMISE theory, failed to find an iconic or mnemonic descriptor, possibly causing the comparative obscurity of his valuable concepts.

Dr. Seligman proposes 5 elements of happiness, Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. PERMA theory. PERMA is a memorable acronym and, as evidence, I did not have to look anything up to write down it’s meaning here.

Dr. Davidson’s equally useful theory also proposes 5 elements of happiness: Social Intuition, Context Sensitivity, Outlook, Attention, and Resilience. Lacking a useful mnemonic, I had to look up some of them, though I know their concepts well.

By using WE PROMISE as a mnemonic, the pathways to happiness become memorable and useful.

An Applied Theory of Happiness

WE PROMISE theory is designed to be used as an applied theory. Something ordinary people can use on a daily basis to improve the quality of their lives (principle 4).

The connection between everyday actions and happiness is a conceptual structure with the goal of Happiness as the top-level. Beneath that are the 9 WE PROMISE categories. Each category contains several (typically 7 to 10) Happiness Essentials. Each Essential is underpinned by an broad base of specific Actions that people might take to fulfill that need.

WE PROMISE theory states that how strongly we feel each of our needs varies from person to person (principle 5). This occurs conceptually at the level of Happiness Essentials and physically at the level of Actions.

For example, to achieve greater happiness, a person for whom Having a Fit Body (a Happiness Essential in the Wellbeing category) is a high priority need, might choose to take Action by ordering a workout video, setting aside 30 minutes a day, and exercising regularly.

Actions Interact in Multiple Categories

Most Actions that people take involve more than a single WE PROMISE category.

Take the example of exercising. Exercise not only helps develop a Fit Body, Lowers Stress, and improves Sleep, all Wellbeing Essentials, but it also improves feelings in the categories of Outlook, Involvement, Success, and Elasticity.

All these interactions lead to increasing levels of Happiness. To the extent that one of the “side-benefits” is also a high priority, that’s all the better to recommend a particular Action in the service of improved Happiness.

In this applied theory, the focus is on those Essentials with some degree of individual control. There is little sense, in individual practical terms, of focusing on needs outside of one’s control, i.e. Health, though one may focus on proximate Wellbeing needs, such as Healthy Diet, Low Stress, Adequate Sleep, and Fit Body.

What is important for such an applied theory is to use it to guide people to the best Actions they can take to optimize their happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction.

At the scale of governments, research, and leadership, other Happiness Essentials are within their purview, such as Health (Wellbeing); Public Safety, Freedom (Environment); Education (Meaning, Involvement, Success); and Social Structures (Relationships).

A Living Theory

WE PROMISE theory is intended to be a living theory. As new research clarifies and refines our understanding of the human mind, improvements to the theory will be needed. Ultimately, it is possible, even likely, that such understandings will morph WE PROMISE theory into something else entirely, though that time appears to be a far away.

Until such a time, it is in the area of the Happiness Essentials that identification, consolidation, and organization is most likely to be in flux, whereas the WE PROMISE categories appear better-suited to cover the range of human needs.


WE PROMISE theory is intended as useful, hands-on construct that ordinary people can use. It does not claim any specific degree of independence between categories but rather focuses on useful commonsense terminology designed to overcome the limitations of human memory.

While in the conceptual version of the theory, there are many possible Happiness Essentials that can be defined, in the applied version, Happiness Essentials are actionable goals that are well within the power of most people to affect.

It is these individually actionable Happiness Essentials that Happiness International focuses its attention on.

It falls to governments and other sources of public leadership to continue helping improve those Happiness Essentials that are beyond the power of a single person, such as Health, Public Safety, Freedom, Education, and Opportunity.