There are two fundamental types of happiness, namely hedonism and eudaimonism. Hedonic happiness comes from the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, whereas eudaimonic happiness comes from the pursuit of authenticity, meaning, virtue and growth. In short, hedonia comes from doing what feels good, and eudaemonia comes from doing what feels right.
Well-being and sustainability
This distinction between the hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being also sheds light on the best path to sustainability as well.
The hedonic path is essentially short-term, short-sighted and quite selfish. Whilst all people need some hedonic well-being in their lives, in the form of positive emotion, constantly seeking pleasure and avoiding pain will tend to lead to profligacy and waste. Since it is selfish and wasteful, pure hedonism is unsustainable.
In contrast, the eudaimonic approach is much more likely to be sustainable. With a sense of meaning, positive goals and a good moral bearing providing purpose (rather than just passive consumption) the eudaimonic approach fosters a long term view and responsibility for others, as well as the self.
Every person needs both types of happiness, but our economy mainly caters for just one of them; the reason being, you can’t package meaning or virtue and sell it, but you can sure sell pleasure.
Looking for a fix
A fix can be drugs, but it can be anything else that gives us pleasure – sex, gaming, shopping, eating, smoking, alcohol, gambling, social media, and so on. However, fixes don’t really fix anything, certainly not for long. Of course we want things that make us feel good, but not only are the effects fleeting, there are the problems of addiction, habituation and the law of diminishing returns. These mean that you need more of whatever it is to get the same pleasant effect.
Our economies take full advantage of hedonic happiness, providing choices for things that give pleasure of every kind, including fashions, fads, fast food, and fake breasts, not to mention more blatantly destructive goods such as alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Then there are multitudes of products and services for our convenience and ease; in other words, the avoidance of pain. For example, fast food and ready-made meals offer a convenient alternative to people who are busy working. People pay to get their lawns mowed, their dogs walked, their houses cleaned, and practically everything else they could do themselves. Ease is a disease that stops us from living authentically and completely.
In the words of Jim Rohn:
“Don’t wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom.”
Hedonia is undoubtedly not a bad thing. However, no amount of hedonia can make up for a lack of eudaemonia. Every person needs a proper balance of both for well-being.
Eudaimonia is a side-effect of purposive activity, meaning it cannot be pursued directly. Some common key aspects of eudaemonia are:
- Authenticity and self-discovery
- A sense of purpose and meaning in life
- The pursuit of excellence
- Growth and development of one’s best potentials
- Flow and intense engagement in activities
A quick scan of this list shows that the economy cannot supply eudaemonia. It is also true that over-work and over-consumption divert people from the pursuit of eudaimonia.
The opposite of a fix is called flow. Flow is a state of engagement in an activity that you enjoy and that you are good at. Flow isn’t about pleasure but it does involve a deeper satisfaction. Indeed, flow can be physically challenging, stressful and even painful, such as rock-climbing, marathon running or motorbike racing. Flow can also be mentally challenging and difficult like writing, mathematics or debating.
In The Academy, Plato defines eudaemonia as “The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.”
Hedonism or Eudaimonism
Our culture and economy must support what people need most. What people need most are the fundamentals ‘sufficient for a living creature’, plus the time and means necessary to pursue eudaemonic satisfactions.