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When I was a confused 17-year-old trying to decide what to do with my life, I was repeatedly given the advice, “Do what makes you happy!”
So, I did.
Or at least I did what I thought would make me happy.
In my teenage mind, this equated to doing things that felt fun. I partied up a storm, dated up an even bigger storm, and gallivanted all over the world on rock climbing adventures.
Did I have fun? Yes. Undoubtedly. Contentment? Sure. Bliss? Oh, yes! But happiness?
Not so much.
At least not in the way that I thought happiness should feel.
I had imagined that happiness would be an enduring baseline where I not only felt pleasure and contentment but also a sense that I was thriving. But the joy and bliss I experienced were fleeting, always requiring more stimulation or novelty to be sustained.
I would frequently experience a sense of comfort in my good life while simultaneously feeling stuck in a rut and a deep sense of emptiness.
I realized later that the biggest problem was that I had confused pleasure and contentment with happiness.
What is happiness?
In the 4th century B.C., the Greek Philosopher Aristippus taught that happiness was obtained by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. He introduced the concept of hedonia (happiness from pleasure), which derives its name from the Greek word for pleasure (hēdonē).
Also, in the 4th century B.C., renowned Greek Philosopher Aristotle took a different view of what contributes to happiness. He posited that happiness was achieved when people lived virtuously and in alignment with their personal purpose and meaning.
In short, happiness was gained when people experienced constant growth and could be their best selves. He called it eudaimonia (happiness from flourishing), which derives its name from the Greek words for good (eu-) and spirits (daimōn).
Pleasure versus flourishing
The concept of eudaimonia was an epiphany for me. It made me realize that while hedonia is necessary for happiness, it is not sufficient. Thus, no amount of hedonic pleasures would make up for a lack of eudaimonia. One did not compensate for the other.
I realized that I had solely been chasing hedonistic pleasures but not eudaimonic flourishing. And my lack of eudaimonia was the elusive key to the happiness I sought.
If you’re struggling to understand the difference, here are some real-life distinctions — Bingeing on candy or sleeping in may be pleasurable, but you are not flourishing. On the other hand, giving birth to a child or having a purposeful job may provide a lot of personal growth and meaning but not be pleasurable.
It’s not my fault, really. It’s because clever marketers have long figured out that it is much easier to sell pleasure than fulfillment. So, we are constantly conditioned to believe that the thing, that vacation, or that sexy person will make us happy.
Perhaps, like my younger self, the reason you may not have found the happiness you seek may be because nobody ever told you about eudaimonia.
Why “Do What Makes You Happy” Is Terrible Advice
“Do what makes you happy” isn’t just bad advice because so many of us confuse pleasure with happiness. It’s also because humans are actually extremely bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future.
Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert shares research showing that our brains are really quite bad at guessing what will make us happy, but it will try very hard to do so anyway.
For example, if you asked someone if they would have sustained happiness after winning the lottery — the answer for most people would be a resounding, “Yes!”
The point is that — chasing what we think will make us happy likely won’t make us happy.
But if we can’t chase happiness, what should we do instead?
Read the article I wrote about it to find out! The article also helps you assess if eudaimonia is what is missing from your quest for happiness and how to increase it.
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