How do we define happiness?

What is happiness?

There are two major aspects in the science of happiness, both of which stem from ancient Greek philosophers:

Eudaimonic wellbeing

This is an overarching term for a deep kind of contentment that comes from a sense of self-actualisation, personal growth and meaning. Over two centuries ago Aristotle’s original concept of eudaimonia was about leading a virtuous life and the modern day version of it centres around flourishing and functioning well.

In reality, eudaimonic wellbeing is about using your strengths, having a sense of purpose, positive relationships, doing something good in the world, autonomy and a feeling of competence and confidence in yourself. It is of course a multifaceted concept, but it can be summed up in a simple way: eudaimonic wellbeing is achieved by putting effort into something that has meaning to you but goes beyond the self.

Effort + Meaning = Eudaimonic Wellbeing

Hedonic wellbeing

The clue is in the name! Hedonic wellbeing comes from hedonism and is all about the pursuit of pleasure. It can be seen as the feel-good factor, with all of the fun and frolics to boot. The only focus in hedonic wellbeing is on maximising pleasure and minimising pain. It is generally the better-known version of happiness that’s experienced in the peak moments of enjoyment.

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What is happiness and how can you achieve it?

What is happiness?

If you ask someone what they most want from their life the majority will say “to be happy”. Being “happy” is a major goal for human beings and a subject that has fascinated thinkers, philosophers and teachers for centuries. 

It could be a moment of serenity, a feeling of joy when you’re having fun, a connection with someone you love or just the satisfaction of knowing that you’re living your life with purpose.

People naturally want to feel happy, but is it something you can create or does it just happen accidentally? The true paradox of happiness is it seems that the more you chase it, the more elusive it can be.

Buddhism declares that the pursuit of happiness is the root cause of unhappiness, in itself causing a dissatisfaction with life that is borne out of craving. Modern science now agrees with this ancient spiritual wisdom. People that chase happiness, that value it above all else, often set standards for themselves that are impossible to obtain and this leads them to feelings of disappointment. So, is it possible to build enduring wellbeing without falling into the trap of chasing happiness?

The good news is that science is now starting to answer some of these questions. “Positive psychology” is investigating questions such as how do we flourish, what gives us meaning and what makes us happy. It has been around since the turn of the century and is starting to produce consistent evidence as to what it takes to improve our happiness. Positive psychology identifies and creates “treatment methods or intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviours or cognitions” and according to studies by Sonja Lyumbomirsky and Nancy Sim they have been shown to significantly enhance “happiness” and reduce depressive symptoms.

As a counsellor I have worked with many clients over the years, along the way gaining an insight in to what happiness (or lack of it) actually looks like. All of that experience has led me to believe that happiness is widely misunderstood and certainly isn’t something that just happens to people.

Over the coming weeks I am going to explore “happiness”, what it means and what are the “happiness” habits we can all practice in order to enhance our psychological wellbeing.

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