Happiness and treadmills (two words I wouldn’t usually put together)
I’m writing this on the way home from my first long weekend of on-campus study for my MSc. The very first day was entitled “The Good Life”: deconstructing happiness, wellbeing, and emotions. In short, I arrived that morning thinking I had a reasonable idea of how to define and describe those things – and left that evening, completely wrung out and no longer sure of my own name.
Critical thinking and deep-thinking skills, well and truly engaged!
I need more time to process most of the learning from the weekend, but one of the topics I’ve really enjoyed thinking about is the different definitions of happiness: hedonia and eudaimonia. There are also various other forms of happiness (chaironic, prudential, halcyonic), but I’m on a fast train from Euston so they’re going to have to wait. If you’re not accustomed to hedonia and eudaimonia, there are various definitions of each but in summary:
Hedonic happiness is the pursuit of pleasure. It’s a life of joy, satisfaction, and feeling good. The word hedonia comes from the Greek of “delight”.
Eudaimonic happiness is the pursuit of living virtuously. It’s a life of purpose and meaning, serving others, and personal growth. The word eudaimonia comes from an abstract compound noun meaning “well spirit”, and the ideas go back to Plato and Aristotle, and early Eastern philosophy.
Much of the academic research has focussed on comparing the two, but for me it’s clear that both are necessary and important. A purely hedonic happiness would probably feel quite empty and superficial after a while, like a never-ending Freshers’ Week. (N.B. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Freshers’ Week is very different as a more-mature post-grad). Yet a happiness that was solely eudaimonic would certainly be virtuous, but surely a bit dull long-term. The right balance between the two is probably a personal preference.
A particular theory that’s piqued my interest is that of hedonic adaptation, also called the hedonic treadmill. This suggests that as humans we quickly adjust to any increase in happiness, effectively returning back to a set-point. So, any uplift in happiness is short-lived - even if it’s the result of something for which we’ve worked really hard or waited for a long time. Once the novelty has worn off, lottery winners usually return to their previous level of happiness (and in some cases the money makes them less happy). It works the other way too: we can experience terrible things in life, but usually return to our previous level of happiness after an adjustment period.
In the workplace, this treadmill may become evident in the context of a promotion or pay-rise: the happiness and positive feelings unfortunately wear off fairly quickly, but the additional responsibilities remain. I don’t think this means we should stop striving for these things, but we need to recognise they won’t necessarily (at least, on their own) make us happy indefinitely. There are some theories about preventing hedonic adaptation, including seeking out enjoyment from a range of sources, and learning to better savour our positive experiences (both in the moment, as well as looking to the past and future).
It’s made me wonder: is there a similar treadmill for eudaimonia? Do we adapt to increases in our eudaimonic happiness? If we find more meaning and purpose in our life (whether through our work, our family, or our wider community), do we become accustomed to it and effectively ‘lose’ that additional value? Do we need to keep investing more and more time in our personal development or supporting others, to keep experiencing the benefits of those things?
Or is the happiness that derives from eudaimonic acts more enduring? Less like a treadmill, going nowhere indefinitely - and more like a run to an actual destination? I’m not sure, but I hope that’s true. In any case, it’s helpful to be mindful of how much hedonic and eudaimonic happiness we’re experiencing - and to watch out for the hedonic treadmill in particular.