Back To CoursePositive Psychology Study Guide
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How do you know what will make you happy or what it will take to get to that point? This is a big question that people spend most of their lives grappling with, but it's also mostly subjective. For example, what it takes to make one person happy might also make someone else very unhappy. Indeed, this is a truly complex concept, but there is a way of breaking it down to be a little more accessible.
The first step to understanding happiness might actually be to do away with that word altogether. Happiness is so subjective a term that it is virtually useless in attempting to understand what makes a person feel fulfilled or satisfied. A better way of framing it might be to use the term well-being, which is the extent to which a person feels comfortable, healthy, and satisfied with his life.
Happiness and well-being might seem like nearly identical terms, but consider this: a person might use drugs or alcohol to feel happy, but this is short-term and has serious consequences for his physical and mental health that will likely lead to unhappiness. Given that, when people use the term 'happy' what they're really referring to is a state of well-being.
In a very broad sense, there are two ways that people tend to go about achieving happiness or well-being. The first is the hedonic approach, which originated with the Greek philosopher Aristippus. From his perspective, a person's main objective in life was to experience as much pleasure as possible while generally avoiding any painful experiences.
For instance, some people associate happiness with having lots of material wealth and spending as much time as they can socializing with friends. For these people, happiness could be achieved through buying things, going out to restaurants or bars, and generally having fun. In the case of the hedonic approach, the objective is to spend as much time having fun and as little time as possible doing things that aren't fun, pain avoidance, like working and engaging in boring or tedious tasks.
When it comes to a person's well-being, some critics argue that the hedonic approach is a logical fallacy, meaning that there is a flaw in the person's reasoning. Their criticism is based on the idea that a purely hedonic pursuit of happiness doesn't necessarily contribute to a person's overall well-being. For instance, someone could pursue pleasurable experiences by abusing alcohol, engaging in risky sexual behavior, or partaking in dangerous activities like skydiving. These activities can provide momentary pleasure, but they do not always contribute to well-being and might actually have negative consequences in the future.
In response to Aristippus' hedonic approach to happiness, Greek philosopher Aristotle offered an alternative that he referred to as the eudaimonic approach to well-being. Aristotle found the idea of happiness, at least as it was described by Aristippus, to be a crass concept.
From his perspective, just because a person can do something and it may lead to pleasure, that doesn't mean that it should be done or would contribute to well-being. A eudaimonic approach, on the other hand, was the pursuit of personal fulfillment and a realizing of man's potential. Volunteering to help others, for example, would improve well-being because it is contributing to one's own community. Likewise, the pursuit of knowledge is also eudaimonic because it makes a person more capable and well-informed.
Over the last century or so, the eudaimonic approach to well-being has been embraced by many psychologists and has some evidence to back up its potential. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, for example, is an important psychological theory that suggests people need more than just momentary pleasure in order to achieve well-being. According to Maslow, people need, among other things, to feel safe and loved, and to have the opportunity for self-improvement.
The problem with discussing happiness or well-being in either hedonic or eudaimonic terms is that it assumes that these two ideas are polar opposites rather than two sides of a spectrum. Realistically, pursuing well-being through a purely hedonic or purely eudaimonic approach isn't likely to result in happiness or success.
For example, the pursuit of nothing but pleasure while avoiding any type of pain or discomfort (hedonic) would probably get old after a while and leave the individual feeling somewhat empty. Likewise, living a life that is pure and virtuous (eudaimonic) all the time doesn't exactly satisfy the innate need for pleasure that people experience.
In recent years, researchers have begun to consider how these two approaches can be blended to achieve a kind of balanced well-being. This approach recognizes that people are complicated, emotions are messy, and life is nuanced. Moreover, recent research suggests that happiness, meaningfulness, and well-being are not mutually exclusive. For example, driving your grandmother to a doctor's appointment is meaningful but it doesn't necessarily make you happy. Conversely, hanging out with your friends at a bar could make you happy, but that doesn't mean that it will be meaningful or contribute to your well-being.
There are a number of different theories and ideas that fall into these two categories and the reality is that there is some truth and value in both approaches. Therefore, the pursuit of well-being isn't an either/or situation. Rather, it requires some flexibility and a balance of the hedonic and eudaimonic.
Because the idea of happiness is so vague and subjective, it might be more productive to consider different approaches to well-being, or the extent to which one feels comfortable, healthy and satisfied with life. In a very broad sense, this can be done by analyzing the hedonic approach, which emphasizes increasing pleasure and avoiding pain (and which some believe to be a logical fallacy), and the eudaimonic approach, which focuses on personal fulfillment and a meaningful life.
These two approaches to achieving a state of well-being are very different, but modern research and theories, like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, suggests that the eudaimonic approach is the more rational of the two, though a mix of both strategies might be the most realistic for achieving happiness.
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Back To CoursePositive Psychology Study Guide
6 chapters | 55 lessons