The Pursuit of Happiness(es)

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.

Life is like a box of chocolates: onnomnomnomnomnomnom.
Life is like a box of chocolates: nonnomnom.

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.

“Lord don’t move that mountain; just give me the strength to climb it.”

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.

Oooh, pretty!

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!


I Don’t Look Happy, but Should I?

Okay, it’s been a while since I posted. Lots of things happened. Lots of things still happening, actually. But I’m here, and it’s good to be back.

Some people who saw that last sentence probably are imagining someone male, scrawny but good-looking with a Jake Gyllenhall/Adam Levine thing going on, flashing a megawatt smile and pumping his fists in the air, sleeves on his collared shirt rolled up to the elbows, emitting a general “let’s do this!” vibe of positivity.

Well. That’s not me.

That’s Me in the Corner

And that’s not been me forever. Well, not literally. Just for as long as I can remember, I suppose.

(Note: This is not a cry for help. A lot of the things I write from here on in may seem sad or depressing, and I can’t stop anyone from seeing it that way. But it’s a description of things the way I see them.)

I wasn’t the saddest kid on the block or anything, but I was never a zipping pocket of energy either. Why bother? There were enough unruly kids in the neighborhood or in the classroom, so why should I take on that role? It would’ve been redundant, and it would’ve resulted in more pediatric Brownian motion than the adults could handle. Kids are called “bundles of joy”, but even back then I had an inkling that the phrase was used as some sort of ironic joke by hassled, frazzled, at-the-end-of-their-rope parents more often than it’s polite to admit. Warped? Maybe. Misinformed? Possibly. Perhaps you could chalk that up to early exposure to sitcoms. Whatever the reason, I thought it was better to stay still and be as non-disruptive as possible. If I could stay out of people’s way, it would be better. Less contact, less friction.

I still think like that. Old habits die hard.

Yes, I think I'll stay in my alone jar for a while. What, you don't have one?
“Yes, I think I’ll stay in my alone jar for a while. What, you don’t have one?”

And it’s not just for others’ sake that I want to be alone sometimes. It’s also because I just want to be alone sometimes. It’s irrational, but I find it exhausting to be social. I know that humans are social beings, it’s important to maintain networks, you have to acquire bridging capital so that you can make small talk and keep networks alive, et cetera. But the idea of being always on, especially in this age of social media and constant connection, sounds like a chore to me. For me, when it comes to using my free time, it’s often more important to rest than to connect. I need to be rested so that I can remember to be a half-decent human being. I can’t be the life of the party, but I certainly can smile and nod politely with the best of them, as long as I’ve slept properly.

In Defense of the Gray

Don’t understand what I mean? Well, if you’ve ever heard someone say “I’m not a morning person”, then that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Still not sure you get it? Watch this video of one of my all-time favorite ads.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s wrong for people to be all bright and smiling and brimming with enthusiasm. I’m just saying that I’m the kind of guy who can’t muster up that kind of mood most of the time, and find it annoying when people expect me to. And I’m certain I’m not alone. Plus, in my personally pessimistic opinion, if you’re happy all the time, it’s not happiness. You need troughs to have crests. You need valleys to have peaks. You need negatives to have positives. Otherwise, it’s just one long, flat, unfulfilling plateau.

And it’s not as if a person’s emotions are set on binary mode. It’s not as simple as “you’re either happy or sad”. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities, between drug-high euphoria and total staring-into-the-abyss depression. And for each degree of happiness/sadness, there is a different flavor thereof. For instance, there’s being happy from bonding with family, and there’s being happy from hanging out with friends/co-workers/other people whose company you can actually enjoy. And there’s being sad because you have to go to school or work again, and there’s sad because you’ve been eating the same meal for the past three days.

But sometimes, people come up to me and say “cheer up, sourpuss”, “turn that frown upside down”, “smiling is a tax-free activity, you know”, or something that suggests I look sad, and I should work to be happy and look it instead. And I’m sometimes frustrated when people act as if those are the only two choices one should have.

“Hi, my name is Leo, and I confess that I am not deliriously over the moon 100% of the time.”

Look, I get it. It’s easier to live life with just a limited set of assumptions and choices, and to operate as if other possibilities are a non-issue. It’s more convenient to just work with the assumption that people have to be happy all of the time, and things get easier when people are happy. The thing is, not everyone can be enthusiastic. Not everyone expresses their happiness in whoops, howls, and fist pumps. Not everyone can manage anything much more than a tight-lipped grin.

So I submit that just like how standards of beauty don’t have to be set in stone or imposed, so too should standards of looking happy not be imposed. A Colgate smile should not be mandatory apparel for happiness.