If you’ve been following my Thrive in Shanghai Wellness Blog for a while, you’re aware that I’ve recently started my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology (MAPPCP). I’m loving what I’m learning, but like with everything in life, knowledge is power only when is internalised and then applied. This article is my interpretation of the knowledge gained from the lecture on the complexities of the good life.
Often when we think about the good life the first thought that pops into our mind is attaining the state of happiness. Many of us spend a great deal of time and effort pursuing happiness. We often ask ourselves, “How could I raise my level of happiness?”; “Will getting a boyfriend / a bigger house/ a better job make me happier?” In fact, people have been obsessing about happiness for yonks for many good reasons. Prof S. Lyubomirsky, the author of “The How of Happiness” and Dr Shawn Achor, the author of the “The Happiness Advantage” found that happiness has been linked to many positive byproducts such as better health, less stress, richer social interactions, more resilience, more money, increased productivity, increased creativity and the list could go on. In fact, in some countries such as Bhutan, Gross National Happiness (GNH) used to measure the country’s prosperity is prioritised over Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With so many positive derivatives… no wonder the research on how to increase one's happiness has become a serious pursuit.
What is happiness, anyway?
- Is it just a word with numerous definitions?
- Is it just a word that means different things or experiences to different people?
- Is it a transient or permanent emotional state?
Well... for me 'happiness' is an inside-out kind of deal, of course, a great partner, a scrumptious meal, a beautiful house, an exotic holiday, or a fatter paycheck aka the pleasures of life - put a smile on my face, but these certainly don't create a long-lasting happiness that would add to my life’s purpose, so what does?
Let’s go back to the wise ancient Greek philosophers and see what they believed constituted happiness.
There are two distinctive camps here; one concerned with the hedonic paradigm and the other with the eudaimonic paradigm.
The former one views maximising the pleasures of life and minimising pain as the ultimate goal needed to reach happiness. Aristippus (435-366 BCE) the father of this school of thought deemed that one should embrace her/his needs and seek to fulfil them. Hence all the ‘little things’ in life that bring an instant gratification such as chocolate, shopping, sex, gaming, drinking… contribute to happiness. In his view, happiness is pleasure; full stop. (Peterson, 2006)
The latter one, views authentic happiness as being true to one’s inner self, aka it focuses on the need for uncovering our full potential. Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the father of the concept of eudaimonia, believed that hedonic happiness was vulgar and just focusing on pleasure isn’t good enough to achieve happiness. For this reason, he believed that not all human desires are worth pursuing. His view about happiness was more concerned with ethics, virtuous actions, and moral questioning. (Peterson, 2006) But does this mean happiness is about denying oneself the pleasures of life? Does it mean going against our human instincts?
The idea of eudaimonic happiness was further looked at by Stoic thinkers, who saw self-discipline as a key to leading a virtuous life. Maslow’s concept of self- actualisation that focuses on personal growth, development of our strengths and finding our life’s purpose, sees hedonic happiness, aka SWB (subjective well-being) as a by-product on our journey to self-actualisation, and not as the goal.
Campbell (1971) warns of the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ or ‘hedonic adaptation’, aka if we’re focusing on pleasures such as a fatter paycheck, a better car, a better house, to raise our happiness level, then over time we might find ourselves in a position where we’re constantly trying to outdo our current situation.
A simple change in our external circumstances is very unlikely to make much difference in our happiness level. In fact, Prof Lyubomirsky (2008) argued that only 10% of our SWB is shaped by our circumstances.
As humans we’re highly adaptable species thus we adapt to both 'the good' and 'the bad' and after an initial 'high' caused by getting what we want or we thought will make us happier, we revert back to the initial level of happiness. Hence, the name ‘hedonic treadmill’ even though we’re running after the next thing, in reality, we're still standing in the same position. Namely, the feelings associated with external pleasures quickly wear off and we’re back where we began. Thus, focusing and appreciating what we have rather than what we lack is crucial if one wants to attain happiness. Prof S. Lyubomirsky (2011) uses marriage, as an illustration of myths about happiness. Getting married initially makes people happier but this happiness isn’t long lasting due to our 'hedonic adaptivity'. We often become familiar with our partner and might start taking him/her for granted this, of course, might lead to neglect, resentment and/or dissatisfaction. However, hedonic adaption is not always bad and can work in a positive way as well, for instance, a divorce. Most people associate divorce with unhappiness, but research shows that stressful events in our life don’t necessarily lead to unhappiness. As mentioned before 'hedonic adaptation' means we can adjust to a new situation regardless of how bad we might initially feel about our circumstances. Through unhappy events, we often build resilience and might become better off as a result.
From the discussion above it's clear to me that the hedonic paradigm on its own is not sustainable and does not bring 'true happiness'. The question is, “Can these two paradigms work in synergy?”
Martin Seligman’s model of Authentic Happiness talks about the ‘pleasant life’ in which we focus on positive emotions (hedonic paradigm) and about the ‘good life’ in which we focus on doing things that lead to 'flow'. The concept of ‘flow’ was first introduced by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) as a state in which one is absorbed completely by activity performed, aka time, space, problems become irrelevant. From frequent states of ‘flow’, which is usually associated with maximising one's strengths, one can finally progress to the last stage of Seligman’s model - the ‘meaningful life’. At this stage, through our thoughts and actions, we focus on something greater than ourselves. However, since writing this model Seligman has now acknowledged that positive emotions, engagement in an activity and meaning are not enough to achieve authentic happiness. He has introduced two additional pillars, aka achievements and relationships. The new model is called PERMA. This model combines both hedonic and eudaimonic paradigms.
PERMA consists of positive emotion (P), engagement (E), relationships (R), meaning (M) and accomplishments (A).
Theories mentioned in this article are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defining happiness. It’s also important to bear in mind that our happiness level is very often closely correlated with the kind of society that we live in, continuously looking for a silver lining might be much more difficult if one is socially disadvantaged. However, as outlined in Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ even in the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, one can find a sense of meaning, which even though doesn’t lead to happiness can certainly reach the last stage of Seligman’s model - “the meaningful life”. The love Frankl had for his wife was what gave him salvation, aka a sense of meaning that allowed him to preserve his spiritual freedom and human dignity, even in such dire conditions. He believed that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Through his experience, he has shown that humans don’t have to be defined by their life's circumstances. What's more, he portrays a single-minded pursuit of happiness as the very thing that ironically “thwarts happiness”. By pursuing hedonic paradigm we become ‘takers’ rather than ‘givers’ and he believes that there is definitely more to the good life than the attainment of happiness. From my own experience and those around me, I’ve observed how pursuing self-absorbed hedonic pleasures, is often toxic and I agree that there is more to ‘happiness’ than pleasure alone. Seeking for deep relationships, purposeful ways of self-expression and altruism gives our life a deeper meaning.
Perhaps our obsession with happiness should shift to the pursuit of our lives’ meaning where happiness is a byproduct experienced each time we discover a layer of our true-self. Or perhaps discovering our life’s purpose go hand-in-hand with a happy life. Well… I’m still a firm believer that “eudaimonic happiness” is born from inside out and as such gives us a life filled with meaning rather than just a temporary pleasure, hence it is worth pursuing.
So can we have it all? I believe that happiness and meaning are inseparably intertwined and being happy might contribute to a more meaningful life and vice versa, aka having a meaningful life can contribute to a happy life.
To finish off I want to leave you with activities that might help on your quest to happiness or meaning, whichever resonates with you more. These practices help to bring attention to what’s already in your life and take away from what you lack. Instead of looking for greener grass, look at what you already have and feed your soul with positive thoughts. Remember, happiness isn’t some kind of an imaginary future but a state of mind so if you want to be happy then embrace each moment for what it is and choose to make the best of it.
Paths to a happier or more meaningful life:
Choose at least 2 of these practices and start implementing them into your daily routine. Also, if you want to know what I do to feed my soul, read my previous blog post.
P.S. If you liked today’s article, please share this blog post with anyone you think might benefit from reading it or working with me. I'll see that you get bonus karma points for taking the few seconds to do so. Thank you x
Izabela Your Certified Primal Health Coach
- Achor, S. (2010) The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York: Crown Publishing.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
- Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Hedonic adaptation to positive and negative experiences. In S. Folkman (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health and Coping. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. (Chapter 4)
- Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfilment. New York: Free Press.
- The Hedonic Treadmill- Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows? 5 September 2016. Positive Psychology Program https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/hedonic-treadmill/