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The hedonic treadmill vs the eudaimonic staircase
Happiness depends on both pleasure and meaning in one’s life
What is happiness, and how do we achieve it? Those questions have kept human beings occupied ever since our species has been able to formulate questions about abstract notions like “happiness.” Much of Greco-Roman and Eastern philosophy is, explicitly or implicitly, devoted to such questions. And more recently science has gotten into it, in the form of positive psychology and such.
The basic idea of positive psychology is sound: just like doctors need to concern themselves not only with disease, but with preemptively cultivating the health of their patients, so psychologists should move away from an exclusive focus on mental disorders and consider the psychological wellbeing of their clients.
And you know who else often made an analogy between physical health and mental wellbeing, as I just did? The Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics, and other schools of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, of course! And for once modern scientists have not ignored philosophy, but have actually used available philosophical frameworks to make sense of modern empirical research and to improve it whenever possible.
Here I’d like to briefly discuss a short article by Alan S. Waterman published in American Psychologist (vol 62, issue 6, September 2007, pp. 612-613) which provides us not only with a good example of how science can build on philosophy, but also with a very practical perspective on the perennial questions of the nature of happiness and how to achieve it.
Waterman points out that one reason people—including psychologists—get confused about happiness is because the concept itself is a bit vague and, most importantly, made up of two conceptually distinct components.
The first component is often referred to as “hedonic,” from hedonism, and has to do with pleasure. Hedonia is statistically correlated with measures of subjective well being, such as feeling relaxed, or excited, or content.
The second component is the “eudaimonic” one, and has to do with meaning. Eudaimonia is associated with notions such as fulfilling one’s potential, exercising mindful effort, pursuing clear goals, and feeling challenged in a way that leads to personal growth.
Research shows that both the hedonic and the eudaimonic components contribute to happiness, though, interestingly, the relationship between eudaimonia and happiness is stronger—statistically speaking—than the one between hedonia and happiness.
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It hardly needs to be stated, but most Greco-Roman schools of philosophy can be understood as advancing one or the other of these two components as the crucial one for happiness. The Cyrenaics, for instance, insisted on hedonia understood as the pursuit of physical pleasure in the here and now. The more sophisticated Epicureans thought that the highest pleasures were mental, not physical, and that the highest of them all was defined negatively: lack of pain.
By contrast, Platonism (including Academic Skepticism), Aristotelianism, Cynicism, and Stoicism were all eudaimonic schools, which treated pleasure as secondary or even as positively hindering the quest for a meaningful life, understood by them as a life of virtue. In turn, virtue meant to behave in accordance with reason and pro-socially, though there were nuances within this particular group of schools.
The odd one out was Pyrrhonism. For Pyrrhonists the goal was the same as for the Epicureans, ataraxia, or mental tranquillity. But they claimed that this is best achieved not by the avoidance of pain but rather by suspending judgment on all “non-evident” matters. The emphasis, therefore, was on epistemology as the key to happiness, and plenty of people have pointed out strong practical similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism (Pyrrho, as it turns out, visited India with Alexander the Great and talked to the “gymnosophists,” probably early Buddhists).
Back to Waterman’s paper. He points out something interesting that distinguishes hedonia from eudaimonia. Psychologists have known for a while about a phenomenon known as the “hedonic treadmill.” This is the empirically established notion that pleasures always, eventually, taper off and need to be replaced by new pleasures if one wishes to maintain a certain degree of happiness.
This is the very same phenomenon that keeps the modern consumerist society working: feel bad? Treat yourself to some “retail therapy”! Are you now getting bored by your new shoes, your recently acquired iPhone, or your brand new car? No worries! Just go out there again and by yourself something more! It’s good for you, and it’s goof for the economy!
Well, it’s actually debatable whether attempting to stay on the hedonic treadmill is good for you—both financially and psychologically—and it is certainly not good for the environment. But that’s another story. The issue I want to focus on here is the very existence of the hedonic treadmill and the suggestion, made by Waterman, that there is no eudaimonic equivalent of it. Meaningful activities don’t become boring in the same way as hedonic ones do, because it is always possible to ratchet up our level of engagement with them, and—most importantly—because the pleasure we get from meaningful pursuits lies in the process, not the outcome (similar, but not identical, to the difference between atelic and telic activities).
The contrast is perhaps obvious, but nevertheless dramatic. When I go out to buy a new iPhone I do engage in an activity (going shopping). But the point isn’t the activity, per se, it’s the result: I come home with a shiny new, temporarily exciting, iPhone.
When I engage in a eudaimonic pursuit, for instance writing essays for my Substack newsletter, the point most decidedly is not the outcome but the process. What I enjoy is what I am doing right now, while I’m writing this. Once done I schedule the essay to be published and I forget about it. Literally! When my wife asks me over dinner, “so what did you work on today?” I often can’t immediately think of the topic I had written one or two thousand words about just a few hours earlier! (Granted, this could be in part the result of incipient dementia, but I don’t think so…)
The other obvious difference between hedonic and eudaimonic activities is that the second but not the first can be endlessly repeated. It makes no sense, once I get bored with my iPhone, to go out again and buy another iPhone. I have to buy something else, to the delight of the various multinational corporations who own most of our markets. But once I’m done writing this essay, given a bit of rest during which I may read a book or watch a favorite show, I’ll get back to writing again. Sometimes even on the very same topic. Just peruse my output over the past several years, and you will find that I often approach a given subject matter from a variety of angles, returning to it over and over in order to explore it more finely and completely.
Hence the metaphor, used by Waterman, of a eudaimonic “staircase” as contrasted with an hedonic treadmill. The treadmill literally doesn’t go anywhere. You need to keep running just to stay on it. A staircase, by comparison, leads you somewhere new, somewhere you eagerly want to get to. (Of course, these are metaphors, so don’t push them to the point of breaking. Staircases, for instance, are normally not infinite, though the eudaimonic one may very well be!)
As Waterman writes, “Contrasts between hedonia and eudaimonia, two conceptions of happiness, emerged out of competing philosophical perspectives regarding the nature of a “‘good life.’” But psychologists are discovering something that should have perhaps been obvious and yet was not part either of the original Greco-Roman approach or of the early phases of positive psychology: the two conceptions of happiness do not need to be in competition with each other, they can be complementary.
The idea that there has to be one winning approach to the good life is what both characterized and distinguished the various ancient schools: each school subscribed to the notion that there is one chief or ultimate good, and they disagreed on whether that good was virtue, material things, pleasure, tranquillity, and so forth.
Even when a school agreed that there can be more than one thing of value—as both Aristotle and the Stoics did—one good was paramount (virtue, in the case of Aristotle and the Stoics) while the others (material goods, reputation, and so forth) were secondary though necessary (Aristotle) or secondary and not even necessary (the Stoics).
It’s time to overcome this fixation with a single answer to the question of happiness and acknowledge that a good human life is the result of a combination of eudaimonic and hedonic components. And when I say that the former is more crucial than the latter I am not just stating a philosophical preference, I am reflecting the empirical facts on the ground: pleasure without meaning isn’t gonna cut it, while meaning without pleasure is suboptimal. Meaning spiced with some pleasure appears to be the best recipe.
Note that what I just proposed is not at all the same as a relativistic take on happiness. While there certainly is quite a bit of individual and cultural variation in the specifics, I believe that we are talking about a conception of happiness that is valid for all human beings as members of a highly social species capable of reasoning. Which specific activities you will find meaningful or pleasurable will depend in part on who you are as an individual and in which society and time you happen to be born. But that you’ll need meaning and pleasure in your life in order to be happy is a human universal.