Choosing Happiness

Jonathan Clements

WE ALL WANT TO LEAD happier lives, but that’s no easy task. Our first stumbling block: Most of us aren’t even sure how to define happiness.

Fortunately, philosophers and psychologists have come to the rescue, suggesting that there are two different types of happiness. First up: hedonic happiness. Think of a wonderful party with delicious food, sparkling conversation and all your favorite people in attendance. There’s great momentary pleasure and—fingers crossed—scant pain involved.

Meanwhile, eudaimonic happiness comes from leading a life filled with meaning and purpose. Forget the amusement park, the martini or the shopping spree. Instead, think about things like volunteering, writing a novel, training for a marathon or launching your own business. We’re talking about activities that we think are important, we’re passionate about, we find challenging and we feel we’re good at. These sorts of meaningful, fulfilling activities might allow us to enjoy a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi moment of “flow” and get us to the top of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where we achieve “self-actualization.”

It seems any boost in hedonic happiness tends to be fleeting, and we soon return to our personal set point—our base level of happiness. This is the idea behind the so-called hedonic treadmill, where we constantly strive for greater happiness, only to find ourselves running in place. Meanwhile, increases in eudaimonic happiness have the potential to be longer lasting, but such increases also take far more effort.

This division between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness, which has been debated as far back as the fourth century B.C., has moral overtones. How so? Hedonic happiness seems like the easy choice. You go out in the evening for a few drinks with friends and feel temporarily happier, but in the morning you’re back to your base level of happiness and—who knows—perhaps even feeling a little hung over. By contrast, eudaimonic happiness can appeal to our puritanical streak. There’s work involved and challenges to overcome, so it feels more virtuous. We’re striving to be better versions of ourselves and, while we’re at it, perhaps also improving the world around us.

Are the two types of happiness mutually exclusive? Yes and no. Imagine making a sumptuous dinner and then sharing it with friends. There would be the eudaimonic happiness associated with preparing a great meal and then the hedonic pleasure of enjoying it with others. You get both types of happiness—but you get them at different times.

Over the past half-century, happiness research has delivered a host of useful insights. There’s the well-known notion that we tend to get greater happiness from experiences rather than possessions. There’s the idea that happiness through life is U-shaped, with our reported level of happiness falling through our first few decades as adults, bottoming out in our 40s and then rebounding from there. There’s the idea that what matters to our happiness isn’t our absolute standard of living, but how we stand relative to those around us—which is why we don’t want to be the family with a six-figure salary in a neighborhood full of seven-figure income earners.

To this array of insights, I think the distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness is a great addition, one that could help us lead a better life. And, no, I don’t think we should favor one to the exclusion of the other. Instead, we should try to design a life for ourselves where we enjoy both.

We’re all constrained by money and time. As we think about how to allocate those two limited resources, it’s worth pondering the cost associated with each type of happiness. It strikes me that hedonic happiness usually comes with a higher price tag, while eudaimonic happiness involves a greater investment of time. If we go to a lavish restaurant, we’ll get hedonic happiness—and a big bill at the end. But if we decide to learn the piano, we may enjoy long-lasting eudaimonic happiness, but the cost will be a hefty commitment of time.

For those in the workforce, the inclination will be to favor hedonic happiness because, in the course of a busy workweek and perhaps with children to raise, time is in short supply. What about eudaimonic happiness? It is, of course, worth striving for, but it’ll take discipline and good time management. Indeed, for those in the workforce, perhaps the best hope for eudaimonic happiness is to find a job they love.

Retirees, by contrast, may have fewer years ahead of them, but more free time during the course of any given week. If we’ve done a good job of saving, we should have the money needed to buy hedonic happiness. But hedonic happiness alone won’t make for a fulfilling retirement. That’s where that free time comes in. How will we convert those hours into eudaimonic happiness? For those of us in or near retirement, it’s a crucially important question.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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