Eudaimonia May 2018 • 3 minutes

Eudaimonia is an alternative kind of happiness to hedonic. Almost no one actually uses those words in conversation, but hedonic means pleasurable where eudaimonia sort of boils down to meaningful. Hedonic happiness, as in pleasure, has been popular lately while people complain of a lack of meaning in their lives. Eudaimonic happiness was theorized to counteract that, by focusing on ethics and meaning instead of pleasure, but those things can be pretty zero-sum and counter-intuitive as I’ll show.

It is hard to unwind the extent to which hedonic happiness is weaved into modern culture, but it is everywhere and actually gaining momentum despite the downsides. Many forms of personal freedom that arrived since the 60s are actually a form of acceptance for hedonic pleasure in the mainstream. The problem is that in many cases eudonic and hedonic happiness are competing with one another: being a parent or doing something difficult tends to be eudonically pleasurable but hedonically disastrous.

Would people be better off understanding the different forms of happiness? It seems like people already understand pleasure and meaning, and that modern people seem to be drowning in pleasure and absent of meaning in a way that many people are self aware of, but not sure how to address. I’d argue the only way to address it would start with reintroducing the concept of happiness as a result of constraints and struggle as opposed to the result of pleasure and freedom. It’s a hard sell but worth it long term.

This has been alluded to a little bit with the trend back to stoic philosophy. But it could be taken further when applied to things that have shifted into the realm of being seen as oppressive to hedonic happiness (which almost by definition means it’s eudonic in nature if it’s worth doing at all). Starting a family is a great example because people are choosing not to do it for short-term oriented hedonic reasons but rationalizing it to themselves for long-term eudonic reasons. This can’t end well.

The science on this issue is pretty clear too: people get significant meaning from hardship, especially hardship that requires resilience and community. People often talk about how nothing brings the neighbourhood together like a natural disaster, which while terrifying actually bring meaning to people in a way that no amount of comfort or pleasure ever could. The case is not to seek out natural disasters, but to instead recognize that struggle and stress can bring their own form of powerful, lasting happiness.

Another anecdotal example is that people seem to base their expectations and assessment of their own success on how independent they become from their parents and how subsequently successful they become in their career. For this reason, people who escape a really bad situation in a country without much in the way of opportunities and find their way to a place with lots of opportunity tend to both struggle for most of their life and perceive their lives to be very meaningful as a result. That’s not pleasure.

Any time an ideology in people seems to reach broad consensus, you have to think about whether there is something being overlooked in taking the opposite perspective. I think in this case that a lot of the personal freedoms gained by 60s-era progressivism may actually have taken away the struggle and constraints and resulted in having a cohesive interpretation of what is meaningful. Because happiness is rarely an independent game, and often tied closely to cultural incentives of who is virtuous. People travel because travel is seen as a cultural good as much as they do because it’s pleasurable. I’m not saying don’t travel, but I am saying that constraints work as far as meaningful living goes.

There are many ways life rewards those who pass the marshmallow test (as a child, if offered, would you take one marshmallow now or two in five minutes?). In this case, thinking about what experiences you have had in the past that resulted in the most meaningful memories and lessons can inform how to make decisions to lead a more meaningful life in the future. Seek meaning, not pleasure, since the bias of culture and people is cutting in the opposite direction, to get a more balanced happiness.