What makes you happy? And what do cotton candy and fruits and vegetables have to do with it? I’ll get to that in a bit, but first I want to take a look at one way of thinking about the routes we attempt to take on our quest for happiness (and which ones work and which ones don’t).
In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman describes three distinctly different routes to happiness: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and The Meaningful Life (also described as Eudaemonia). As this article summarizing the findings of two studies on happiness describes it:
“First the Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible and having the skills to amplify the pleasures. This is, of course, the only true kind of happiness on the Hollywood view. Second, the Good Life, which consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life. Third, the Meaningful Life, which consists of using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.”
The research described in the article took a look at which of these approaches had the greatest impact on people’s happiness. The first study looked at life satisfaction. The result?
“He found that both the Good Life and the Meaningful Life were related to life satisfaction: the more Eudaimonia or the more Meaning, the more life satisfaction. Astonishingly, however, the amount of pleasure in life did not add to life satisfaction.”
Another study looked the impact of activity driven by “hedonic motives” vs. “eudaimonic motives.”
She devised a scale reflecting hedonic motives (i.e., pursuing pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort) and a scale reflecting eudaimonic motives (i.e., pursuing personal growth, development of their potential, achieving personal excellence, and contributing to the lives of others). Eudaimonic pursuits were significantly correlated with life satisfaction whereas hedonic pursuits were not.
So, any way you slice it, pursuing pleasure seems to be a poor path to sustained happiness. On the other hand, making a difference by serving something greater than yourself, as well as personal development, appear to be more reliable routes.
And now, as promised, cotton candy and fruits and vegetables. The popular culture definition of happiness – the Pleasant Life – is a little bit like cotton candy for the soul. Nice, fun to eat, but ultimately not a lot of substance and not particularly nourishing or sustaining. The Meaningful Life, on the other hand, is more like fruits and vegetables for the soul. Maybe not as sexy in the eyes of popular culture, but much deeper and long-lasting.
Just like your body can’t thrive on a diet of junk food, your mind and heart can’t thrive on an exclusive diet of pleasure seeking. They need the deep nutrition provided by meaning.
What are you doing to develop yourself? How are you making a difference? How are you getting outside your own little ego-bubble and focusing on something beyond yourself?
The more you do, it seems, the happier you’ll be.
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