Happiness Is Not Always Joyful
When we stop seeking endless pleasure, true happiness can finally be found.
Posted January 31, 2020 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
There is a common misunderstanding, particularly in American consumer culture, that the primary aim in life is to experience pleasure. What this usually means is a state of perpetual bliss, a sense of well-being that permeates all of one’s waking hours and leads to restful nights full of wish-fulfilling dreams. We often scramble after other goals, like wealth, power, and the ideal mate, in hopes that we will make this happiness more likely.
The unfortunate reality is that the more we seek this state of blissful perfection, the less happy we are likely to be in the long run. Nothing will ever quite measure up, nor be lasting enough to sustain us. Further, the pain of longing for a joy we do not have keeps it always outside of our grasp.
A more sustainable approach would be to seek a balance of the two broad types of well-being that have been explored in psychology and philosophy across the ages. The first kind, called hedonic well-being, is the more familiar one to us. As the name implies, it is the kind of well-being we experience through states of joy and delight.
We go after pleasure and try to avoid pain. When we are laughing and joyful while out with family or friends, resting peacefully in a state of contentment, or enjoying the many sensual pleasures of life, we are basking in hedonic well-being. We know this feeling, and we like this feeling.
The other type is called eudaimonic well-being, or eudaimonia, and it emphasizes the feeling of meaning, self-actualization, and purpose in life. We experience eudaimonia when we feel our life matters, or when we are acting in service of a cause that matters to us. It may come with feelings of joy, but it also may include negative emotions, hardship, and struggle.
A political activist who has been imprisoned may not have much hedonic well-being but may report a high level of eudaimonia. Parenting young children may be exceptionally challenging at times, but the sense of fulfillment makes it worth it. Engaging in the work of personal growth may be similarly difficult, but yield great rewards.
Many challenges we experience in day-to-day life can be reshaped when we remember the concept of eudaimonia. Instead of pushing away the discomfort, we can remember that sometimes hardship is part of living a meaningful life. As wonderful as the highs of hedonic pleasure can be, they are only one part of happiness and can even feel empty without the enrichment that comes from a sense of purpose. Seeking an integration of these two approaches, a life full of both joy and meaning, will bring the most happiness of all.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–166. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141