I thought it made sense to define happiness before attempting to find or create it. It was harder to pin down that I expected, but I discovered two approaches to happiness.
The Hedonic approach is all about pleasure seeking while the Eudaimonic approach is about personal growth, purpose and finding meaning.
Thinking about these two approaches helped me think about the balance in my own life and the way in which it might be good to shift a few things.
It seems happiness is one of the most generic words in the English language; so generic it’s almost meaningless. Yet the experience of happiness – in many of its forms – is entirely subjective. Something that makes one person happy can make another person entirely miserable.
The New Economics Foundation offers a really helpful description of wellbeing. They say:
“Wellbeing can be understood as how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and a social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole.”
Since happiness forms part of how we feel and, if you had it you’d likely evaluate your ‘life as a whole’ positively, perhaps wellbeing is a better marker to aim for. It rolls happiness into it without necessarily assuming that happiness will be present all the time.
The Hedonic Approach – centres around the presence of pleasure and absence of pain. The belief is that filling your life with pleasurable experiences and avoiding painful experiences would lead to happiness.
The Eudaimonic Approach – focuses on meaning and purpose. It is about personal growth, building strengths and contributing to the greater good.
Pleasureable experiences will certainly form part of a big happy life. Where that pleasure adds something rather than masks something else, it can be valuable.
Pleasure is subjective though so what works for one person might not work for another.
There’s also a strong negative component to happiness achieved through seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Anyone familiar with happiness achieved this way will recognise the hallmarks of the “Hedonic Treadmill”.
When we do things or buy things that give us pleasure, of course we experience pleasure. The trouble is the pleasure only lasts for a little while and then wears off and we have to do the activity again, buy something else or engage in whatever it was that gave us the first ‘hit’. The trouble is that, over time, we need a ‘bigger hit’ to experience the same level of pleasure. When I bought my first car – a beat up old Peugot 205 – I was thrilled. It gave me so much joy! Until it didn’t. I got bored, no longer valued the car and eventually wished someone would steal it so I could use the insurance money to buy a better one. If I were considering buying a new car now, buying a similar car would feel distinctly unsatisfying. The hedonic treadmill keeps us looking for the next thing and, if we stay on it for long enough is likely to lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
This approach isn’t quite as subjective as the hedonic approach. Most people cite personal growth and purpose as obvious markers for happiness.
Instead of being about pleasure seeking, the eudaemonic approach involves the pursuit of meaning.