The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

What Does It Mean to Be Happy?

Two ancient ideas about the Good Life still resonate today.

Somewhere around 2500 years ago, a little argument developed among a bunch of free Greek men with too much time on their hands and too many neurons for their own good.  They were trying to create a definitive description of the Good Life. Their argument stretched across several decades, and many luminaries joined in; Gorgias, Aristotle, Aristuppus, Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, etc.

Believe it or not, their argument isn't really settled even now.

It's not as if everything the Ancient Greeks proposed remains out of reach. After all, is was no less a brainiac than Aristotle who said "And of course, the brain is not responsible for any of the sensations at all. The correct view is that the seat and source of sensation is in the region of the heart."  Aristotle's fascination with the heart didn't stop there.  Among the reasons he used to justify denying rights to women was that (a) they had fewer teeth than men (take that Oprah!), and their hearts don't beat.  That guy had one of the smartest hearts of all time.

Unfortunately, not all of the riddles they fought over have been so easy to resolve. The current embodiment of this old debate is that true happiness consists of either (a) feeling good by having lots of pleasurable experiences and as few painful experiencesas possible, or (b) becoming good by working to achieve your full potential as a rational, moral human being.

Homer Simpson is our feeling good guy.  He's a creature of the moment.  He dreams of a limitless supply of pink-frosted donuts, a skooshy chair he can sit in while he watches football (and ducks out of church), and a place to call his own under the beer tap at Moe's Tavern.  Think John Belushi's character in Animal House.  In TV and movies, these are usually the guys (and usually they are guys) we love to see.

Another way of looking at these differences is by asking, "are you happy?"  If we ask Homer Simpson, and he happens to be chewing on a donut, he'll say "Mmmm, donut," which translates to yes.  Right now, I am happy.  Sometimes, the people we ask give us a different response.  "In the grand scheme of things? Well..."  Usually they trail off.  This is the other kind of happiness.  Not are you happy right now, but overall, in your life, taking everything into consideration, is your life what it should be?

Meredith Grey, from Grey's Anatomy (which I am sure I would never watch voluntarily), is our second type.  Joel Fleischman, the doctor-out-of-water on the old show Northern Exposure is another of this type.  This is the standards-based approach to happiness. 

On the one hand, we have the feeling type, Homer, saying he's happy if he feels happy.  On the other hand, we have the standards-based type, Meredith, always comparing herself and her state of affairs with some set of standards or expectations she's developed (err, so I'm told).

Homer represents the hedonic argument, famously defended by Aristippus.  Hedonic happiness is getting what feels good and avoiding what feels bad.  Meredith represents the eudaimonic argument, famously defended by Heart Boy himself, Aristotle.  Eudaimonic happiness is working to develop your virtues to their greatest capacity.  Psychologists are working to resolve the question of whether these are different kinds of happiness, different routes of happiness, different sides of the same happiness coin, or two names for the same thing, like puma and cougar.  I think for most people, the best life is one that combines the two.  Most of us want to feel good, few of us like pain, and most of us would like to be good people and fulfill our potential in the time we have.

No disrespect to philosophers, but psychologists like our data.  Rather than debate with Aristotle about why having a heart that doesn't beat means you should be dominated and exploited, we'd probably put our ears to a random sample of women's chests and give a listen.  Case closed!  Next!  Most of the data we have shows that Homer happiness and Meredith happiness show up at the same time in the same people (e.g., Kashdan, Biswas-Diener, & King, 2008).

The picture at the top of this column comes from an old tale about the time when Aristotle admonished Alexander the Great to avoid the distractions of his tooth-deprived wife, Phyllis, who was reputed to be very hot.  To get back at him, Phyllis would chance upon Aristotle in the garden in full, seductive mode: "with bare foot and disheveled hair."  Who could resist that?  Apparently not Aristotle.  Although it was probably originally composed to reinforce the dangers of passion, I think this story - or at least the picture - tells of the inseparability of passion and reason, Homer and Meredith, pleasure and meaning.  After all, at the end of every Simpson's episode, Homer learns his lesson (and so did Aristotle).

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.


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