HAPPINESS IN ALL ITS GLORY
Positive Psychologists have many interests but the field is known more for its study of well-being and happiness than anything else. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the last ten or so years since Positive Psychology came into existence, these subjects have become increasingly complex. Almost straight away two types of well-being were distinguished: hedonic and eudemonic. However, both terms (especially the latter) , have been defined and used in a variety of ways. To make things even more complicated other types of happiness, such as charionic and prudential happiness, keep popping up. So, is there any way that we can bring some clarity to all this? Usually, there are two methods of dealing with such matters. One is to simplify the concept at hand, reduce it to some fundamentals. The problem is that this often does not work well when applied to human beings. There have been so many attempts throughout the history of philosophy and psychology to simplify happiness that if this was possible it would have been done by now! If anything, we learn from the past that simple formulas don’t work. Thus, we are left with the other option: to preserve the complexity but try to make sense of it by establishing relations between different types of happiness. To use an analogy, a great number of individual words can make sense and can be easily remembered if they are put together in a meaningful sentence. So, this paper is an attempt to create a working model of these different types of happiness. In order to do so, we first need to examine the meaning of these concepts, because it affects their relationship. Let’s start with hedonic happiness.
Throughout history, hedonic happiness has been associated with pleasure. This is not surprising – when we experience pleasure we often feel happy too. However, there are two issues that need to be clarified here: First of all, pleasure and happiness should not be identified (ref. Eysack). In fact, pleasures, as we all are familiar with, do not always contribute to happiness. For example, cheating on one’s partner may be pleasurable but does not contribute to happiness if it disturbs one’s peace of mind. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that another ingredient is necessary for this type of happiness besides feeling good – namely peace of mind (or inner harmony). These two states, feeling good and peace of mind, have been associated with happiness since Antiquity (although some scholars have emphasised one, and some the other) and we can safely conclude that both are necessary.
A second issue is that although feeling good is an essential part of hedonic happiness, the concept should not be confined to carnal pleasures. Epicurus, for example, valued more than anything a good intellectual conversation with friends! Playing with children, reading a book, even spiritual experiences such as being one with the world or bliss, all feel good! After all the meaning of ‘hedonic’ is ‘delightful’ so there is no reason to exclude the above delightful experiences from this category. For many people it may feel strange to associate some spiritual experiences with hedonic happiness, but this is only because we customarily but unnecessarily reduce this term to experiences of a most banal sort.
To be clear what we mean by hedonic happiness is important because this type of happiness receives somewhat bad press and is generally perceived as inferior to eudemonic happiness. However, if we remind ourselves that feeling good is not only about physical pleasures and that peace of mind is also necessary, hedonic happiness does not need to be seen in this way. This is not to say that all experiences are equally valued. A distinction between various experiences can be preserved even if they belong to the same category. To make another analogy, we may value graphite and diamonds differently, even if we recognise that they are chemically in the same category. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be helpful here. His model has been criticised for a number of reasons, and the author acknowledges the validity of some of these criticisms. Nevertheless, a somewhat simplified version serves the purpose well here. The assumption is that hedonic happiness occurs when some of our needs are satisfied. These needs can be grouped into four broad categories. In fact, this categories coincide and can also be taken as the stages of development that many developmental psychologists propose (ref.):
Maslow needs Hedonic happiness
Transcendence Chaironic happiness
Need for self-actualisation Accomplishments, success, achievements
Social needs Love and Belonging
Physical needs Satisfaction of physical needs
We can see that enjoying a nice meal, having a good laugh with friends, the satisfaction of accomplishing something and the sense of bliss that one may experience when expanding beyond the boundaries of one’s own ego have all the qualities of a positive experience but are nevertheless different since they satisfy different needs. But this is not enough - after all, we spend more time getting somewhere than being there. For example, we may study for three years to get a degree, but the happiness of receiving diploma does not last anywhere near that long. Soon after, we embark on another journey of seeking a job or employing our skills in some other ways.
All the above types of happiness look like platforms or ports, the points of arrival (and new departures), but what about process, what about the journey itself? This is where eudemonic happiness plays a part. In very simple terms, while hedonic happiness is about experiences that feel good, eudemonic happiness is about actions that are worthwhile (meaningful). This involves prioritising long term goals over immediate gratification. Saying so, the term has acquired a number of related but somewhat different meanings throughout history. Eudemonia is usually associated with the following: living in accord with one’s values (self-regulation), personal development (actualising one’s potentials) and some form of transcendence (e.g. helping others, contributing to greater good). These three can be added to the above model as illustrated below:
Maslow needs Hedonic happiness Eudemonic happiness
Transcendence Chaironic happiness
Self-actualisation Accomplishment, achievement
> Personal development
Social needs Belongingness
Physical needs Fulfilment of physical needs
We can see that these three types of eudemonic happiness can serve as a link between the platforms of hedonic happiness. What they all have in common is that they represent a dynamic component. Rather than being somewhere, they refer to getting there, being in the process. Take, for example, mastering self-regulation (or living in accord with one’s values). We can never say that we are there in this respect – we exercise this through actions on a daily basis. Why is this a link to belongingness? As Aristotle already recognised, from the very first activity that requires self-regulation (toilet training), self regulation is bound up in life with others, We need to be in charge and control of our physical needs in order to become a part of the social world. One may say that sometimes self-regulation has nothing to do with others. For example, if I want to eat more healthily I need self-regulation but this does not necessarily lead to love and belonging. Although some people may be motivated by hope for love and belonging, this is not always the case. Here, we need to bear in mind that although self-regulation is initially developed for the purpose of social acceptability, later on it becomes a meta-skill that can be used in a wide range of situations. The other question may be what does self-regulation have to do with happiness? Most people think of it as a chore. Yet, self-mastery, or exercising one’s agency is known to be a great source of physical and psychological well-being. We deprive young people from a particular type of fulfilment when we don’t encourage them to develop self-control. Discipline may be a chore or unpleasant thing when it is imposed from outside, but self-discipline does not to be so.
Just as self-discipline requires moving beyond being driven by our physical needs, personal development requires leaving well trodden paths and embarking on reflection and self-reflection. Self-transcendence too requires surpassing the concern with only one’s own success. Thus each of these processes entails a departure from their respective platforms of hedonic happiness.
Of course, this model is an idealised representation. We don’t always travel smoothly from one stage to another and enjoy the process in between. What about when we face a storm on our journey or when our ‘ports’ get ransacked? What about death, illness, injustice, betrayal, failures? Well, perhaps there are times when self-regulation needs to become coping and resilience, when personal development needs to be transformed into post-traumatic growth and when self-transcendence becomes self-sacrifice. And at the end, we can hope to retain peace of mind that our life has been worth living.
The above model can accommodate the above - no model would be complete if it couldn’t. But, for the time being let’s keep it simple. We can distinguish seven types of happiness that are all dynamically connected. If this seems complicated, here is its ‘readers digest’ summary: a happy person is one who can balance peace of mind and feeling good on one hand with worthwhile engagements on the other. These are some suggestions why this model can have a practical value:
- It can explain why some people and whole societies are not very happy even if some of their need are satisfied.
- It can help locate what sort of happiness is a primary motive for an individual at that point in time and therefore utilise positive psychology interventions better.
- It can help us understand why the same shoes do not fit everybody and why people may seek happiness in different things.
- It may help us realise that the working conditions and pay are not sufficient for happiness at work. People need to have either the sense of self-control (autonomy), the sense that they are professionally or personally progressing. or the sense that they are contributing to greater good, to feel happy at work.
- It can help us understand why we, human beings, are restless and don’t seem to settle easily. Just like Odysseus who, according to the legend, after twenty years finally arrived home, only to embark on another journey soon after, we too find that happiness is a journey as much as a destination.
- Finally, it can help us realise that happiness is a life-long dynamic process that consists of various journeys and various destinations along the way. Which also thankfully opens the potential for a long journey ahead for Positive Psychology and Positive Psychologists too. Bon voyage!