Last week, we looked at subjective well-being, an approach which focuses on how individuals feel about their life and circumstances, with a specific emphasis on positive emotional experiences and life satisfaction.
While this approach receives a lot of attention from psychologists, it is not the only school of thought as it relates to well-being as the presence of positives, as opposed to merely the absence of negatives.
Researchers concerned with eudaimonic well-being approach the topic from a different angle, not concerning themselves with the hedonic emphasis inherent in subjective well-being, but instead looking at meaning and self-realisation.
The word itself – eudaimonia – is from ancient Greek and was used by Aristotle in a text dated to 350 BC to describe the best outcomes that can be achieved by individual human action. This, in turn, has been seized upon by modern psychologists who emphasise the idea of living life in such a way as to utilise natural talents and maximise potential.
This idea clearly separates eudaimonic well-being from a more hedonic approach, with the latter emphasising pleasure and happiness, while the former is more concerned with individual growth and the conscious nurturing of your own unique set of skills, talents, and aptitudes. In this sense, eudaimonic well-being is preoccupied with the idea of living in accordance with your true self, what the ancient Greeks called the daimon.
It is important to point out that it does not have to be an either/or-type scenario here. Researchers into subjective well-being do not necessarily ignore eudaimonia, while those whose primary interest is eudaimonic well-being will not necessarily disregard hedonic elements.
Martin Seligman incorporated elements of both perspectives when outlining his idea of the ‘three happy lives’ in a 2004 Ted Talk. Seligman has since advanced on this position, but for now it may be useful to linger on the happy lives he described, precisely because this vision perfectly illustrates that different ideas around well-being can be compatible, and more than that, might be best considered together, rather than separately.
The happy lives Seligman proposes are the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, with each being distinct from the other.
The pleasant life relates to hedonic aspects, i.e., the pursuit of pleasure. This is the kind of happiness we may derive from a night out with friends or perhaps indulging a preference for sweet foods. It is a kind of happiness that is very much of the moment, we feel it as we live it, but it is questionable as to what extent it ‘stays with us’ after the event. Seligman also highlights some key drawbacks to this level of happiness – studies of genetics indicate that some people are more ‘wired’ to experience pleasure and positive emotion than others. In that sense, our capacity to feel positive emotions and the depth with which those emotions will be felt is partly pre-determined by our genes. The second drawback is that the nature of pleasure is that it is fleeting; we become used to it, almost immune to it, and this can happen very quickly. As Seligman states in his talk: “Positive emotion habituates. It habituates rapidly, indeed. It’s all like French vanilla ice cream, the first taste is a 100 percent; by the time you’re down to the sixth taste, it’s gone.”
Both of these points merit further exploration, and we will return to them in the weeks to come, but for now the take-home message from what Seligman highlights is that if your entire ‘happiness strategy’ revolves around the pursuit of pleasure, then you are limiting yourself unnecessarily. Think of it in terms of trying to fill a bucket with water, but there is a hole in the bottom of the bucket. The more water you pour in, the more will escape through the hole. In other words, the bucket will never be full and will need constant topping up to avoid being drained entirely.
The second happy life – the good life – is quite different. One of the key markers here is the experience of eudaimonian flow. Even if the term is unfamiliar to you, you will most likely know what it refers to, as all of us will at some point have experienced it. The flow state occurs when you’re engaged in some activity that perfectly meshes with your skills and aptitudes. It could be any activity, depending upon the individual. The example Seligman highlights is that of a friend who experienced flow when engaged in his work at the American Stock Exchange and when playing in bridge tournaments. The key marker being that for the individual experiencing flow, it is almost as if time stops. You may lose external awareness, as you find yourself in perfect synch with your activity, whatever it is. You won’t necessarily feel pleasure, in fact you may not feel anything at all. Instead, the flow state is characterised by extreme, but almost effortless concentration and absorption. It is only when you emerge from that state and reflect upon what you were doing that you recognise the pleasure that you derived from it, how good it felt.
Another indicator of the good life is to identify your key strengths and then try to structure your life in such a way as to allow you to express or use those strengths as much as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean radically overhauling your day-to-day life; on the contrary, Seligman outlines how it can be achieved in small ways. He highlights the example of someone he knew who was working her way through college as a bagger at a supermarket, a job she did not enjoy. “Her highest strength was social intelligence, so she re-crafted bagging to make the encounter with her the social highlight of every customer’s day. Now obviously she failed. But what she did was to take her highest strengths, and re-craft work to use them as much as possible,” he stated.
The meaningful life builds on this latter point. Here, you have identified your key strengths, but instead of putting them to work for yourself, you devote those efforts to something you regard as being more important than you. Again, what that something might be will depend upon the individual, but the key consideration is that you identify something and put your strengths to work in service of it.
Relating the three ideas of happiness, Seligman adds that they can combine together to good effect. While a happiness strategy made up entirely of the pursuit of pleasure would appear destined to disappoint, that is not to say active pursuit of pleasure need always be a dead end: “Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure’s the whipped cream and the cherry. Which is to say, the full life – the sum is greater than the parts, if you’ve got all three. Conversely, if you have none of the three, the empty life, the sum is less than the parts”.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.
Martin Seligman 2004 Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology?language=en