In pursuit of happiness

Since the time of Aristotle, great thinkers have discussed two types of happiness. One type can come from chocolate, an expertly made cup of coffee, a spot of sunbathing, or a good back scratch. Such things are said to bring hedonic happiness. If we were being a little less pompous, we might say ‘pleasure’. Hedonic happiness might also be identified in the absence of pain and suffering. The pleasure of a good night’s sleep is often unavailable to us when we have some important matter pressing on our minds.

The other kind of happiness is eudaimonia, which Prof Daniel Robinson (Georgetown and Oxford) has referred to as ‘living a flourishing kind of life’. We might think of this as living according to our own values, doing what we consider right, and being the kind of person we each want to be in the world. Eudaimonic happiness is the outcome many self-help books are aiming at (however clumsily) with their invocations to ‘be your true self’ and ‘make your contribution’.

In the long-term, these two types of happiness go together quite well. There is pleasure to be found in doing the right thing, and yet each of us knows how often that pleasure turns up after the fact. The pleasurable feeling of achievement occurs after the workout, once the interview has ended, once the chore has been completed. As a result, in the short term, these two types of happiness can be in competition with one another. This is the implication of a psychological theory which is currently standing up to all the tests research scientists can throw at it. The theory suggests that people can become more psychologically flexible, which is to say we can learn to forgo short-term pleasure, even tolerate short-term unpleasantness, in order to live the kind of life we really want to live. Doing so leads quite reliably to a more profound sense of happiness. What’s more, people who are highly psychologically inflexible have been shown in dozens of studies to be at increased risk of psychological problems like depression and anxiety.

So what’s the take-home message? It seems ironic, but if you can, learn to tolerate unpleasant emotions. Make friends with anxiety. Be curious about low mood. In doing so, you might just become a happier person.

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