Home > Uncategorized > What kind of happiness should we strive for?

What kind of happiness should we strive for?

July 3, 2015

Some of you may have stumbled across the New York Times’ recent Room For Debate, addressing the pursuit of happiness. Short and insufficient summary:

  1. William Davies: Once you focus on optimizing happiness, you will be asking for trouble. At the individual level, optimizing for happiness will be used against us at work. At a higher level, it will be a form of social control.
  2. Bina Agarwal: We need both objective (GDP, health) indicators and subjective (happiness, satisfaction polls) to measure the progress of nations.
  3. Barbara Ehrenreich: Happiness scores can be easily tampered with, and rarely gets at the concept of accomplishment of goals.
  4. Sonja Lyubomirsky: Don’t measure happiness too much, but don’t forget to measure happiness, because it’s good for you.

I found the conversation frustrating. I’ve been thinking about happiness a bit lately, and it strikes me that the above conversation is entirely muddled because of its lack of precision. There are different kinds of happiness, and only the third debater, Barbara Ehrenreich, really touches on that.

So, at the very least, there’s hedonic pleasure, and then there’s eudaimonic pleasure, which basically correspond to short-term versus long-term. Hedonic joy comes when you see a naked body or you eat doritos. It can also happen when you see your child laugh or enjoy the smell of garlic. In other words, it doesn’t have to be bad for you, but it is a form of short-term sensation.

Eudaimonic joy happens when you feel the pleasure of some kind of longer-term accomplishment. Aristotle invented this concept, deeming happiness vulgar, and stressing that not all desires are worth pursuing as, even though some of them may yield pleasure, they would not produce wellness. We experience eudaimonic joy when we clean our house, when we gain understanding of something that was elusive, or when we spend “quality time” with our friends and loved ones. It’s anything that gives us pleasure and contributes to our goals.

Now that we are equipped with these terms, the above debate is easier to parse. And of course the debaters weren’t given very much space for their arguments, so I’m not suggesting they don’t know this stuff, but it’s still helpful for us readers.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s point is that hedonic pleasure, being fleeting, is also easy to manipulate; at the same time, when we are asked whether we’re happy, we often interpret it to be some combination of those two kinds of happiness, with possibly random weights assigned to each. Right after I get off a roller coaster I’m more likely to be thinking hedonic pleasure, right after I listen to a poetry reading, or take a nap, maybe I’ll be more interested in the eudaimonic kind.

William Davies, on the other hand, is mostly discussing hedonic happiness, because in terms of brain chemicals, we can measure the stimulation of the pleasure centers of our brains, and we can manipulate people based on those measurements. Davies imagines a world where our corporate masters have a perfect view into our brains and have figured out how to stimulate our pleasure centers so that we are maximally “productive.” This approach is deliberately unrelated to our eudaimonic pleasure, because it’s not focused on our long-term goals, but rather the goals of our employer.

Bina Agarwal seems to want to understand eudaimonic happiness but is making do with the random mix, and Sonja Lyubomirsky seems to confuse “trying too hard to be happy” with focusing on hedonic happiness.

We could get better data and better debates around “happiness as a thing to strive for or not” if we distinguished between short-term happiness and long-term happiness. It’s not that hard to do, and it obviously matters.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. JSE
    July 3, 2015 at 8:18 am

    “Hedonic joy comes when you see a naked body or you eat doritos.”

    Not “or,” Cathy. “And.”


    • July 3, 2015 at 8:21 am

      I stand corrected! Or actually, I lie supine corrected, with orange crumbs tickling my neck.


  2. Tom Goodwillie
    July 3, 2015 at 9:49 am

    I don’t even know that the founders meant a state of mind, or a sensation, by the word “happiness”. They might have meant something more like “good fortune”.


  3. July 3, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Nice analysis. Happy to know about Hedonic Joy and Eudaimonic Joy. Isn’t happiness a state of mind that assumes we are in a comfortable and safe position, either it could be physically, financially or in the presence of our loved ones.


  4. Funkygroovycool
    July 3, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    While defining happiness is an interesting question, its absolute measure across individuals seems almost impossible, given the subjective nature of the concept (and the dichotomy that you introduce). I am not convinced at all by the UN efforts on this topic which seem to reflect more cultural differences than anything else.

    To me, the more interesting question is that of improving happiness (all versions thereof). Whatever measure you define, how do you improve it? Quite a lot of work has been done on the topic (among others by the participants of the debate you mentioned). One model that I find particularly helpful is the PERMA model introduced by Martin Seligman. It lists 5 dimensions, which work as muscles for improving your happiness, are each in and of themselves a means to achieve happiness (although they are generally combined) and can be trickled down into very concrete actions.

    I won’t do it justice, but let me quickly list those 5 elements:
    – Positive Emotions, what are the things that make you feel good in the sense of hedonic joy?
    – Engagement, how do you achieve the state of “flow” where time is irrelevant and you are performing at your best, almost effortlessly?
    – Relationships, how do you satisfy your need for connection and practice empathy?
    – Meaning, how do you give your life a higher purpose?
    – Achievement, how do you satisfy your desire for winning, for setting and accomplishing ambitious goals?

    I find this model very concrete and quite helpful in practice, again especially as there are clear practices/habits that help to train each of these muscles


  5. Josh
    July 3, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    I am sure happiness has many more aspects than two.

    I think there are many problems with making happiness a goal of society or government.

    To cite just two problems: What if someone is only happy if they have more stuff than 99% of the rest of society? Should the government work to make that person happy? What if 2% of society feels that way?

    If Valium makes people happier, do we want to put it in the drinking water?

    It is much better to focus on more tangible and definable things like health, providing adequate shelter and food, education etc. a sustainable culture. Even these are not straightforward to define but seem more tractable than happiness.

    Let’s leave it to individuals to figure out how to be happy once their material well-being is assured.


  6. Josh
    July 3, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    A wise woman has some interesting musing about happiness here:


  7. Allen K.
    July 3, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    This hedonism discussion looks like a good place to tell you and Aunt Pythia to see Magic Mike XXL, and then read Roxane Gay’s review on the Toast. Actually I’m in NYC and wish I’d invited you. I could see it again though!


  8. Aaron
    July 5, 2015 at 9:14 am

    If you have not yet read “Infinite Jest,” I highly recommend it.


  9. Jay Jay
    July 11, 2015 at 7:45 am

    It is pointless to consider happiness outside of a contemplative context; otherwise the conversation degenerates to tittering over strippers or drooling over fast cars and expensive dinners. Worse, you may be tempted to genuflect before the altar of accomplishment, as if any person has ever been satisfied with anything his ego has forced him to fight for. The fact is, the world offers nothing of value, only ephemera. The mind that accepts this–i.e, understands without disillusionment–transforms life’s toxic ironies into pleasant paradoxes, and walks through the world with a smile.


    • Poppa Jee
      July 11, 2015 at 9:32 am

      Precisely! I would only clarify, an accepting heart and an understanding mind working together (yugannada) transform disillusionment and enable compassionate action. Such is eudaimonia and it requires clarity of intention, consistent effort, and much laughter and tears along the way.


  10. david battabong
    July 11, 2015 at 8:52 am

    I am happy because I am reading “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”. Hopefully, the effect will wear off rapidly and I can go back to my stoically negative, but highly serene, usuality.


  11. dingusansich
    July 11, 2015 at 11:01 am

    I wonder if hedonic pleasures hook into emotions that are earliest in psychological development and act like instinctual reflexes. They’re less or just differently evaluative than later accretions, like shame and guilt, that presuppose reference to a “self,” rely on other bits of gray matter that superintend what we call thinking, and manifest competing claims of emotional and mental processes. You might say that when things don’t go well, the hedonic marks the more regressive psychological states like the borderline and psychotic, while eudaimonic distortions, like excessive rigidity, tend toward the neurotic. Incidentally, from this perspective, a self emerges out of primal emotional systems, genetic predispositions, and interactions with others, so the temporal dimension in the classical distinction between the hedonic and eudaimonic might mirror aspects of psychological development. While valorization of the eudaimonic is tempting—particularly since chaotic, disruptive, childish, and not infrequently ego- (or self-) alien emotional impulses can seem dangerous, devouring, and outta control to the waking “I”—the primary emotional impulses, even when unrecognized as “I,” are “us” too, and excessive emphasis on sanctioned thoughts and feelings in the ostensibly rational pursuit of happiness can become, with suitably Greek irony, downright irrational, taking the part for the whole. As Goya said, the dream of reason produces nightmares. Happiness, then, might inclusively interweave the more irrational (or pre-rational) primary emotional information, which is like raw data from the trenches of being, with the higher order (if that’s the phrase) mental capacities and aims of a self.

    It’s also nice to have money.


  12. Chrz B
    July 11, 2015 at 11:46 am


    The only happiness that most people can relate to is a happiness based on conditions. Buddhists and Daosists only explain that chasing after conditional happiness is the cause of our suffering. They do no teach us what happiness is and how we can get it, they show us how suffering begins and how we can get rid of it. This does not mean we do not struggle to make our lives better, but that we do it in that joy of enlightenment and without greed, anger or delusion. When we live in that way we save orselves from repeating our mistakes over again in the next generation.

    But all the time writing and talking about happiness will not bring anyone this joy, it is born out of the deconditioning of our mistaken idea of separation of “self” from the rest of the world and a deep understanding on the nature of duality. That takes spirtual work. And there is no amount of tellig you that will let you understand how this feels. Every year I practice I understand more and the more I understand the less I practice and the more I live.

    Here is a good talk by Ajahn Brahm on the subject:

    And the Daosits agree, we see that “happiness” is a conditional and conceptual idea that has no basis outside of our brains. And it is that we create happiness that forces suffering to be created:

    When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
    When it knows good as good, evil arises
    Thus being and non-being produce each other
    Difficult and easy bring about each other
    Long and short reveal each other
    High and low support each other
    Music and voice harmonize each other
    Front and back follow each other

    -Dao De Ching

    Our deepest issue is not that we do not have happiness, it is that we think happiness is a real, separate, static thing and we keep chasing after it. HA!

    You are just starting and it is your investigation I admire, not yet your understanding. But what fascinates me even more is that we have this 5000 year history of people who have studied these ideas and have the solution, but this group of people think they are figuring it our and working through it for the first time! HA AGAIN!

    On a humorus side note, I TRIED to tell a woman I was dating that I could not love “her”, since she changes eveyday I would have to to fall in love with someone new everyday. 🙂 But before I could tell her that falling in love with her again and again everyday is what I wanted to do she ran away crying! So much for nondualistic romance….


    • July 11, 2015 at 1:44 pm

      In the transcendentalist traditions there are two levels that can distinguished conceptually — 1) the absolute unchanging undifferentiated, eternal, infinite and 2) the relative changing differentiated temporal finite.

      The latter is the manifestation of the former, which is ever unmanifest. The former can be realized but not perceived, imagined, or described. It is ineffable. It can only be reported and pointed toward. The latter is the stuff of ordinary experience. The gap between the two levels is incommensurable.

      The “happiness” of the former is complete and abiding fulfillment. It is called “ananda” in Sanskrit. The “happiness” of the latter is characterized by the alternation of happiness and suffering (sukha- dukha). This is divided into various levels, such as “hedonistic” happiness, regarding which there are many views and aspects, and eudaemonic happiness, which is the byproduct of actualization of potential. Eudaemonic happiness can include transcendental fulfillment as its apex, since it is realization of full human potential

      But in comparison with the complete fulfillment of the transcendent, it’s all suffering in the realm of the phenomenal. However, this lack of abiding fulfillment drives the process that leads to eventual realization.

      For a contemporary conceptual model explaining the process, see Meher Baba’s God Speaks, for example.

      The entire purpose of the relative changing differentiated temporal finite is the eventual realization of absolute unchanging undifferentiated, eternal, infinite. This is the path that all beings tread according to perennial wisdom, which holds that every being eventually realizes that which is ever-present, gradually on the ladder of ascent and suddenly at the apex.


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