Happy SMART Day Everyone!
The recent World Happiness Report reminded me that it is always a good idea to define your terms—even with a common word like “happiness.” That’s because while we all tend to use the word on a regular basis, what I think happiness means, what you think happiness means, and what everyone experiences as happiness are very likely three different things. And if we are going to pursue it as the U.S. Declaration of Independence suggests, then it is critical that we know what we are talking about.
Many people think of happiness as that jolt of pleasure that a person gets when they see someone they love. Or what about when you bite into a piece of dark sweet chocolate? Others talk about happiness as the high you get when your gamble pays off big in Las Vegas or the way people talk about that surge of pleasure they get watching their grandchild swagger across the floor for the very first time. While there is no denying the good feeling that type of happiness offers, it is frequently defined as hedonistic. Of course, we are all self-indulgent and pleasure seeking to a certain degree—even those who bend over backwards doing things for others to win their love or approval. However, we’ve all witnessed examples of where another person takes hedonism to the maximum and becomes completely self-absorbed. At that point, even if he or she is extremely happy, those around them are usually much less so. It’s rather obvious, at least to me, that this form of happiness is superficial, short-lived and one-sided, and hardly what I choose to call SMART.
That’s mainly because happiness by definition can be, and hopefully is, so much more. In fact, another word that more closely defines a deeper happiness is called eudaimonia. (u-da-mon-ia) And while a bit more difficult to pronounce, it fits more closely to our concept of happiness here on SMART Living 365 because it refers to, “a contented state of well-being or human flourishing.” This word with Greek roots is often associated with ideas of excellence, highest human good and a virtuous life. Other usage links it with Abraham Maslow and his work on self-realization, positive mental health and achieving one’s full potential.
Additional well-known psychologists that explore more of a eudaimonic approach to happiness are Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology and among his twenty books, the latest is titled, “Flourish, A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.” Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” which examines the connections between satisfaction and daily activities—primarily those that are self-controlled, goal related and deeply meaningful. Both authors seek to explain the importance of finding meaning and purpose in daily actions to experience well-being and happiness.
This redefined happiness or “eudaimonic well-being” is a focus on living with significance and value. But even though this type of happiness places much of the attention on others, there a numerous personal benefits as well. In fact, an article by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) states “Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.” Practices like pursing life-long goals, volunteering, going to medical school or raising children may actually be hard work on a daily basis, but, as WSJ says, “these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.”
Additionally, according the WSJ “the goal of understanding happiness and well-being, beyond philosophical interest, is part of a broad inquiry into aging and why some people avoid early death and disease.” A journal named “Health Psychology” reports that those with great eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleuken-6, an inflammatory marker of disease. And studies in Alzheimer’s patients show that those with low sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, than those with a greater purpose. Finally, research shows that people with greater purpose in life were less likely to be life and mobility impaired—not to mention less likely to die—by 57%!!! —than those with a low purpose in life.
Clearly, the largest differences between a hedonistic happiness and eudaimonic well-being is a sense of purpose and time spans. Eudaimonic well-being is something that persists even when the going gets tough. On the flip side, hedonistic happiness is a momentary, short-term burst of pleasure. While not without occasional benefit, immediate gratification alone contributes little to a life that feels connected to a grander experience of life. When you think about it—those of us who have a spiritual relationship to the Universe know that the goodness and joy of our planetary existence is diminished unless we put it in context to the Whole.
The fact that the World Happiness Report is such a global exploration of defining happiness in a way that is much deeper than mere pleasure and feeling is noteworthy. But the fact that the decision to make well-being a goal placed at the heart of a global discussion for the future of all peoples is extraordinary. Now that it will be more widely recognized that the success of a country is much more than it’s GDP or the state of it’s economy, we can begin to erase poverty, provide both wide spread education and health care and work to create governments that are non-corruptible and equal for all. Another benefit to those of us working to create a more sustainable and environmentally sensitive world is a vision that focuses on universal well-being offering hope for a better future. After all, how could something which highlights qualities and values that honor purpose, connection, sustainable development and yes, happiness, not be a beacon of light on the global political landscape?
In case you are wondering, I will probably continue to use the word “happiness” freely and liberally rather than the longer “well-being” or even “eudaimonic.” Still, as we pursue a SMART Life 365—which stands for Sustainable/Meaningful/Artful/Responsible & Thankful! —we would be wise to remember that happiness isn’t just something you like to feel; it is actually more like something you “are”—especially when you strive to share it with everyone you know and create a world that works for everyone.
“Authentic happiness involves living a life full of appreciation – being mindful of each and every moment – and passionately pursuing knowledge, friendships, health and career goals.” ~Dr. Martin Seligman
“Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.” ~ Buddha