Given that the wish to be happy is universal, you’d think that happiness would be a core subject at school, and that we’d all be pretty expert on happiness and its causes. But the truth is, most people are somewhat hazy about it. The title of a recent book by Daniel Gilbert, Prof of Psychology at Harvard University, says it all: ‘Stumbling on Happiness.’ In the book – which I recommend highly – Prof Gilbert explains the pitfalls into which we stumble in our pursuit of happiness.
Part of the reason for the collective confusion about happiness may be as simple as the word itself. ‘It makes me happy to reach out to those in need,’ we may say. We may just as easily say, ‘They had my favourite cake so I was very happy.’ But the happiness we are talking about in each case is quite different.
The ancient Greeks had two different words for happiness: hedonia and eudemonia. In brief, hedonia (from which we derive hedonism) is what we take from the world to be happy. We might call it pleasure. Eudemonia is what we give to the world to give us happiness. This is the more profound sense of well-being. How do the two kinds of happiness differ?
|The focus is on me. The pleasure I get eating cake, enjoying comforts/luxuries etc||The focus is on others. The happiness I get is from giving others what they need or wish for.|
|Externally-derived. Our pleasure arises when we come into contact with something outside ourselves.||Internally-derived. Our happiness comes from our own thoughts and feelings.|
|Short lived. Pleasurable experiences wear off quickly and deliver limited satisfaction when remembered later.||Enduring. Doing something meaningful for the happiness of others produces a feeling which still makes us happy when we recall it long after.|
|Subject to circumstances. Even the most delicious cake will not deliver pleasure if a heated argument erupts while you’re eating!||Not subject to circumstances. We feel happy if we’re able to help others even in awful conditions.|
|The more we experience it, the less it delivers. The first slice of cake is great. What about the second …. fifth … tenth?!||The more we experience it, the more it delivers. The feeling of satisfaction we get rescuing the tenth waterlogged bird in a storm may be even greater than the first one.|
With this understanding, it’s easy to see how so many of us get into trouble in the pursuit of happiness. Money (beyond a fairly low threshold), toys, and status are common routes to ‘happiness,’ but what these things actually deliver is pleasure. And, as we can see pleasure is short lived, unreliable and subject to circumstance.
If it’s happiness we’re after, the well-being of others is a surer way forward – the basis of the Dalai Lama’s frequent encouragement for us to be ‘wisely selfish.’
This is a subject I explore in much more detail in my book Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate.
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