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Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D.
Nicholas Kardaras Ph.D.

Keys to Happiness: Feeling Good or Doing Good?

Feeling Good vs. Doing Good: Which Leads to Happiness?

Oh, yeah. That decadent all-the-toppings Ben and Jerry's double fudge brownie is really going to taste good as you let it go from spoon to joy-spot. Mmm-hmmm. Yes indeed, that chocolaty good-taste is really going to make you feel very, very nice-but for how long? More importantly, will the feel-good effects of that yummy ice cream make you happy? Really, the bigger question is does anything that makes a person feel good-from chocolate, to sex to lazy naps on a Sunday afternoon-make a person happy? And I mean really feel-it-in your-heart-and-soul happy? Dr. Todd Kashden, a clinical psychologist and researcher at George Mason University certainly doesn't think so.

Kashden has spent most of his professional life teaching, researching and exploring what makes people happy. In his positive psychology class "The Science of Well Being", Professor Kashdan and his students explored "feeling good" versus "doing good" as two possible variables in the personal happiness equation. What did they find? The short answer: the happiness that comes with "feeling good" activities is fleeting; but "doing good" happiness, now, that's another story. The sense of well-being that accompanies "esteemable" (i.e. volunteer work; acts of kindness or service, etc.) has a significantly longer shelf-life. Kashden's students confirmed this experientially in "do good" and "feel good" assignments; they discovered that, yes, while the sex, drugs and rock and roll "feel good' assignments felt, well, "good"-they didn't lead to a lasting happiness.

As anyone who's ever indulged in a feel-good vice (guilty as charged) understands all too well, the euphoria of the initial feel-good experience leads to a hunger and craving for more-an addictive cycle that psychologists call "the hedonic treadmill". And, as any addict or Buddhist can attest-craving is not the first word that usually comes to mind when we think of happiness or personal well-being.

Think about it in relation to that double-fudge brownie ice cream; you may have told yourself that your sensible diet will only permit three spoonfuls-and no more. Yet after that that third spoonful-while your dopamine pleasure centers of your brain are lighting up like a 4th of July fireworks extravaganza-what do you feel? If you're craving a fourth spoonful, odds are that you aren't exactly what the social scientists might call "happy".

Now let's briefly look at "doing good", what the various world wisdom traditions tell us are the keys to living a more meaningful-and thus happier-existence. Indeed, current research is confirming what philosophers have long known: Living a life of meaning and purpose is the key component in the happiness quest. Plato and the ancient Greeks understood that; Psychologist Victor Frankl in his seminal work Man's Search for Meaning understood that; and Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and one of the founders of positive psychology, certainly understands that.

When Seligman was first developing the field of positive psychology, he gathered with 25 psychologists in the Yucatan to explore the differences between "the hedonic treadmill" and "the meaningful life". In order to find the common qualities and themes that gave life its purpose, Seligman's team examined Western religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and the mores of over 70 countries. They eventually settled on 24 virtues or "character strengths" that included such esteemable traits as courage, modesty, spirituality and leadership.

Dr. Kashdan research indicates that, in addition to developing "character strength" and "doing good", cultivating a sense of curiosity can also be a key ingredient to a happy and meaningful life. In his appropriately titled 2009 book Curiosity?, Kashdan describes how the greatest opportunities for joy and personal growth happen when we relish the unknown and ask "why?"

Plato himself is quoted as saying that "philosophy begins in wonder"; in my book How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life, I describe how living a life of "doing good" can give us a profound sense of meaning and purpose; how looking up at the night sky and contemplating the existential mysteries of the universe-what philosopher Bertrand Russell called "the insoluble questions"-can allow for a powerful and alchemical transformation to occur within each and everyone of us.

And if that happens, then who needs chocolate?

About the Author
Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D.

Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor at Stony Brook University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

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