There is a fairly dominant narrative in the West that the pursuit of happiness is our right and the ultimate goal of a fulfilling life. It is even written into the American constitution, ‘....the unalienable right of a person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. But is this the true path to happiness and the way to a fulfilling and satisfying life?
The Ancient Greeks came up with two ways to describe happiness. The one with which most of us are familiar is hedonistic happiness. This is the type of happiness that is associated with feeling good in the present moment. Things like pleasure, fun, ecstasy, feeling calm or satisfied and the like. It is about feeling good now. We acquire hedonic happiness when our immediate needs or desires are met.
Hedonism is associated with how good our body and mind feels right now and how emotionally settled we are, or put another way, what feels good for us. For example pursuing the absence of pain or a sensory pleasure like a tasty meal or sexual encounter, feeling calm and at ease, fulfilling desires, admiration or power can all lead to hedonic happiness. It is also associated with certain attitudes like "I deserve ‘me time', I am worth it, I have the right not to feel uncomfortable or distressed". All in all, it is about pursuing good feelings for ourselves in the here and now or in the near future.
The other form of happiness that the Ancient Greeks described was called eudaimonic happiness. This type of happiness is not immediate but rather accumulates over time. This type of happiness is associated with accepting hardship in the present moment to attain a virtuous goal, usually for the benefit of someone or something other than ourselves. For example caring for someone else who is in need, taking responsibility for solving a social problem, doing what is right rather than what feels good, work and hard effort towards a worthwhile goal can contribute to eudaimonic happiness. The attitudes associated with this are giving of ourselves, "others are as important as ourselves", accepting suffering for a greater good and being authentic. It is about sacrificing current pleasure for the greater and long term good.
Ultimately, we all know of examples from the pop industry and Hollywood, that extreme hedonism can lead to a short and tragic life, but what of a eudaimonic life? Viktor Frankl, a survivor and commentator of the Nazi concentration camps, made the observation that in the most extreme situations those who had a meaning that transcended their personal desires and suffering, could endure almost any torment and ultimately be fulfilled.