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 (actually, three, but we’ll get to that in a future post, stay tuned!).
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.
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