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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.

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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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macropundit
macropundit
28 days ago

>> “There’s the well-known notion that we tend to get greater happiness from experiences rather than possessions.”

Everyone is saying it as of late, but color me skeptical. Romantic notions parading as research. The truth is that chasing experience is just as much folly as chasing money or things. Moreover, owning things is an experience and provides for experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have. There is no clear line whatsoever between experience and things. It’s just another appealing binary to our romantic sides that make little sense upon reflection.

“.. those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way. Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.”

–John Stuart Mill

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
1 month ago

This is an excellent article. It helped clarify some of the thoughts and ideas I’ve been considering and working as I transition into full retirement. Thanks Jonathan.

Sonja Haggert
Sonja Haggert
1 month ago

Great article. Being a retiree, my hedonistic happiness is about having sufficient healthcare funds. Knowing that I can check that off, for the most part, gives me peace of mind and lets me enjoy experiences. As for eudaimonic happiness, it can be a simple pleasure. For me, it’s often in the form of a really good book. The work involved in picking one is as much a pleasure for me as the book itself. It’s nice to know there is an infinite supply.

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
1 month ago

I decided long ago that I would be happy if I knew I could pay all my bills when they came due. So far, mission accomplished.

This is a bit of a segue, but this article reminded me of George Kinder’s book The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, which are:

1. Innocence: The childhood state where money does not play any role in our lives.

2. Pain: The time when we realize that some have more money than us and some less and that life requires us to work.

3. Knowledge: We come to see how important it is to save, budget, and invest our money.

4. Understanding: We come to terms with our emotional feelings around greed, envy, and resentment.

5. Vigor: Physical, emotional, and spiritual energy must be generated to reach our financial goals.

6. Vision: We tap into our inner wisdom and try to contribute to the health and well-being of communities.

7. Aloha: We practice compassion and service of others without expecting anything in return.

steveark
steveark
1 month ago

What a wonderful post! One of my favorites out of many you have written so well. Thank you for sharing thoughts like these with your readers, we do appreciate it!

Boomerst3
Boomerst3
1 month ago

After working for over 50 years, upon retirement I enjoy the freedom of doing what I want when I want, and nothing at all if that’s what I want. I get a lot of happiness from that. I’m fortunate to have more money than I need, and my kids will get most of it so their lives can have less stress than I did, financially speaking, especially while raising children. My kids all got down payments for their homes, which are ridiculously priced everywhere, but more so here in the northeast. I donate to many causes, and get satisfaction from that, especially when helping poor kids and animals. At this stage of life I don’t seem to need or want excessive hedonistic pleasures.

Newsboy
Newsboy
1 month ago

The succinctness of both happiness realms as described by Jonathan here make this posting a Clements/HD “Hall-of-Fame” item. I have already read it aloud to my spouse and shared copies with both my adult children.

Thank you (yet again) for making what might have been a rather academic / esoteric concept very tangible for HD readers. You have an innate talent in this regard, Jonathan!

Joe Craven
Joe Craven
1 month ago

This is one of your best articles! Very thought provoking and you sent me down the rabbit hole of researching Abraham Maslow. Thanks for that. Money doesn’t buy happiness. I’m a believer of this but I still like to have some. I’ve been quite lucky so far, having worked in a profession I loved and now having a comfortable retirement. Looking back, I made some pretty good money choices but honestly it feels like luck played an outsize role; and I probably have an excellent guardian angel. I enjoy your writings and look forward to future ones.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Craven

Glad you liked the article. Thanks for the kind words.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
1 month ago

Thanks, Jonathan, this is interesting and rings true. And I learned a new word (“eudaimonic”).

Sonja Haggert
Sonja Haggert
1 month ago

Like you, I also learned a new word. I had to look up the pronunciation. That reminds me of a wonderful quote. “Don’t laugh at people who can’t pronounce a word correctly. They probably learned it by reading.”

Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®
Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®
1 month ago

Yes, both styles of happiness are important. When I retired two years ago at age 73, I knew that traditional retirement wouldn’t work for me—focusing on fine dining and golf. Rather, I needed to be involved with activities that give me purpose and meaning. For me, eudaimonic happiness is a meal’s main savory, healthy course. I also call that “psychic income.” Then hedonic happiness is the dessert I might enjoy afterward . . . . perhaps a small piece of chocolate that quickly melts in my mouth. It doesn’t sustain me for the long haul but is fun momentarily. Good to have both. 

mark locke
mark locke
1 month ago

That was a wonderfully succinct and thoughtful article regarding happiness. I have been retired several years now and have achieved the financial security I worked many years for but still always feel a bit empty. Eudaimonic happiness is indeed that missing ingredient, at least for me, and I have already started on a path that brings me lasting joy.

Neil Ridenour
Neil Ridenour
1 month ago

This is a good distinction for me to understand. I always wanted to be doing something I considered important, i.e., I was mission oriented; so I tend toward eudaimonic. I have a tendency to tire out my spouse on these things. Every so often she tells me “slow down, you move too fast.” But since I’m retired, I was forced to set new goals and have to be content with things not getting done as fast as I want. My physical limitations are now much more, so it’s getting used to operating inside a much smaller box of my capabilities. But you readjust, you deal with finding patience and getting used to having others do things for you. However, its an ongoing mental struggle, but my end thought is I’m lucky to still be here. So, I continue to work thru a myriad of health items and prioritize toward maintaining myself so I can watch all my grandchildren graduate from college.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago

I participate in several Facebook groups for retirees and those planning to retire. I typically express my conservative views about saving and spending money. One guy keeps criticizing me as being too conservative and is convinced I am not enjoying retirement because I am depriving myself by not doing more. He doesn’t even know me.

I doubt I could me happier or more fortunate. The transition to retirement went very well – but I still have the urge to always be doing something, but I’m not obsessed.

We don’t worry about income and we have everything we need or want. A good round of golf makes me happy and so does helping a little with grandkids future college costs and attending their sports activities.

You can find all kinds of happiness if you try, I think a good balance is the key.

macropundit
macropundit
27 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

>> “One guy keeps criticizing me as being too conservative and is convinced I am not enjoying retirement because I am depriving myself by not doing more. He doesn’t even know me.”

I know right? And financial advisors used to be financial advisors, and now they think they are life coaches. You’re right “a good balance is the key”. The old mantra (my mother said it frequently) was Aristotelian: “everything in moderation”. It’s crazy, but it just might work. Now people think running from one extreme –always informed by the latest faddish slogans or supposed latest surveys say– is the thing to do, or at least say you are doing, and the upshot is the conventional wisdom becomes that we should chase the opposite extreme.

I’m of the opinion that people will realize what is in their own best interest in time as they mature, and they don’t need my advice. Especially if I don’t know them. We’re inundated with romantic narratives about the supposed evils of modern life that are themselves distorting. Would that these physicians would heal themselves and return to the simple old advice of moderation.

James Kerr
James Kerr
1 month ago

Excellent article, and thanks for penning it, Jonathan. It helped me better understand my own decisions and behaviors, including why I’m spending so much of my newly retired time working on a novel that, statistically speaking, few people are likely to read. I do it for the eudaimonic enjoyment and meaning I get out of the activity itself. Thanks for these terrific insights.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
1 month ago
Reply to  James Kerr

Thanks, Jim. The distinction between the two types of happiness has also helped me to think more clearly about how I divvy up my time and why.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
1 month ago

Great article! I had a very stressful and busy work life. I tried to limit myself to no more than 60 hours a week but was not always successful. I did not want a life of leisure in retirement. I wanted to stay busy. For me, life must have purpose, and my busy ness should be for a purpose.

That is just the way I am wired. Thankfully, I am succeeding in that, but sometimes would like to dial it back a little.

FWIW, I have been retired 11 years. I had a plan for what I would do in retirement, but it has evolved into a completely different set of activities than what I started with. No complaints, just mentioning how things change from what you planned for.

Patrick Brennan
Patrick Brennan
1 month ago

It was one of Jonathan’s articles about happiness, specifically the finding that experiences bring more happiness than buying more stuff, that got me to plan two trips with my wife and 3 of my 4 kids to St. George, UT to explore the Nat. Parks and golf. We made back to back trips in 2015 and 16 because we had so much fun. I am making new family experiences a priority with absolutely no regrets.

Jo Bo
Jo Bo
1 month ago

I suspect that diligent savers (and probably many who read this column) are predisposed to finding eudaimonic happiness.

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