Happiness. Life’s Holy Grail. We all want it, search for it and try and hold on to it if we think we have found some of it. But despite our best intentions, happiness can remain elusive and fleeting and our inner voice often plays that tired old tape which can usually be narrowed down to, ‘I should be happier’. Before we try to potentially increase our happiness, we perhaps need to examine what is happiness and how it can be grown/developed/enhanced. Then we can honestly explore why unhappiness often seems to have taken over our inner and outer worlds.
A useful starting point is to travel back to ancient Greece and examine what the wise old philosophy heads of Aristippus and Aristotle had to say on the matter of happiness and see how timeless their ideas are and relevant to today. Aristippus advocated a life of hedonism by seeking to maximise pleasure and minimise pain.
Positive psychology calls this approach to life ‘hedonic well-being’ and can be characterised by experiencing sensory pleasure in the moment. This way of being has been one of the defining traits of modern consumerism and is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Short term hits of pleasure need to be constantly topped up, leading to a sense of unease and restlessness when we are out of the pleasure zone. What we enjoy in the short term is so often potentially limiting in the long term. Sound familiar?
Let’s see what Aristotle proposed.
Aristotle dismissed the hedonic lifestyle of pleasure seeking as vulgar. He championed eudaimonism because he believed happiness was the result of doing what is worth doing, rather than hitting the feel good button. Positive psychology calls this approach to life ‘eudaimonic well-being’ and is characterised by having meaning and purpose in life, fulfilling potential and being part of something bigger than ourselves. However, the eudaimonic way of being can be seen as rather earnest and morally superior, potentially leading to periods of personal hardship.
Positive psychology doesn’t come down firmly on one side of the hedonistic versus eudaimonic debate, but recent research suggests that pursuing engagement and purpose lead to greater happiness than immediate pleasure seeking. Positive psychology also doesn’t come down firmly on one side of happiness being an objective or subjective phenomenon.
However, subjective well-being is often used as a definition of happiness in positive psychology and consists of one cognitive element and two affective. It is expressed in the following formula:
Satisfaction with Life + Positive Emotion – Negative Emotion
If you have an interest in exploring this further, there are a range of additional resources which can be found at www.positivepsychology.org