We’ve heard it said that “life is like a marathon”. In both cases, you have goals. Also, in both cases, you need energy to get to those goals, so you need some way of producing that energy. In marathon running, runners switch between two types of respiration; in life, people switch between two ways of pursuing happiness.
Gratified or Fulfilled?
Let’s consider two types of happiness as discussed by Greek philosophers. The first is hedonia, the root term for hedonism. Basically it’s the happiness associated with more immediate self-satisfaction and gratification, with little regard for long-reaching consequences and with a priority on minimizing pain. Want to engage in retail therapy? Want to party till the sun comes up? Want to make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young? Find yourself wanting to indulge in the excesses similar to popular musicians like David Bowie, P Diddy, and Steven Tyler? That’s hedonia, baby.
Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is a more long-term kind of happiness. It’s happiness that is associated with fulfillment, with self-actualization, with getting to your highest level of potential. It’s the kind of happiness that accepts the possibility of taking a few licks along the way, and you don’t have to really “feel good” all the time to be happy. Just getting back up when you’re down and making yourself a little tougher as you go on your way to becoming the best “you” can make everything worth it, and much more. Eudaimonia involves more self-building habits: the satisfaction from making or fixing things yourself; the joy of learning things; the empowerment that comes from acting to change yourself or your circumstances for the better.
The thing about eudaimonia, though, is that it relies on inspiration. You need to care about your self-fulfillment in order for that mode of happiness to matter to you, and that can be hard to do when times get tough, when you keep failing over and over again, and when it seems like the values you hold most dear don’t hold any worth in the moral or ethical economy that you are having to transact in. In those cases, you need something to pick you up. When your inspirational beacon seems to fail in those hours of darkness, you need a little short-term, doesn’t-really-matter light. And for those times, I can see the value in hedonism.
So, conventional wisdom holds that people can approach happiness in only one way or the other. There’s one side, which favors pleasures enjoyed by yourself or with someone else; and there’s the other, which favors personal fulfillment over short-term satisfaction. But in reality, you’ll most likely need to switch from one mode to the other as you go through life’s ups and downs.
What’s Your Mix?
So here’s the kicker question: how should you mix your happiness? What proportion of your life should you devote to eudaimonia, and what should be left over for hedonia?
The answer, of course, is that there is no one answer. People are all different from one another. Some people may get more out of the partying, getting-high, intense-stimulation or heavy-escapism lifestyle, while others may look for the more calm, placid, chill contentment that comes from a purpose-driven life. Don’t expect all people to fall within these two categories, however; we’re more likely to fall within a spectrum of these things. To get to your way of happiness, you have to find your own blend. For those who want that put in a psychology-meets-economics kind of way, here’s a blog post with a chart and a scholarly reference.
What kind of happiness do you think works for you? Why does it work? Do you think your preference will change anytime soon? Let me know in the comments!