Wellbeing is one of those nebulous terms we hear a lot of in popular culture. So what the hell do we mean by wellbeing?
It’s not happiness, that elusive butterfly. Wellbeing goes deeper than that. Wellbeing is when you can trust that your basic physical, mental and social needs are and will be met. More than this, it extends to feeling a sense of personal fulfilment and meaning. Meaning is key.
When psychologists discuss what wellbeing means in practice (and they discuss this a lot), they usually adopt one of two perspectives: hedonicwellbeing, which focuses on fleeting moments of pleasure-seeking happiness, and eudaimonic wellbeing, which entails fulfilment and self-realization.
These two views — hedonism and eudaimonia — go back to Ancient Greece and are founded on distinct views of human nature and what a ‘good’ society looks like. And let me just come out right now as being totally on Team Eudaimonia.
Hedonism: a brief history
Greek philosopher Aristippus taught that the goal of life is to experience max pleasure, and that happiness is the totality of one’s hedonic moments. Hobbes, de Sade, Bentham and a posse of others agreed.
Today, hedonic psychologists believe that wellbeing consists of subjective happiness: those moments of joy derived from physical (sex, sports, drugs) or other human pursuits (food, shopping, Netflix).
Our current economic model is based on the hedonic approach. Buy enough things (new clothes, a car, a house) and consume enough stuff (games, food and beverages, social media) and you will be endlessly happy.
Even though as humans, there’s no biological imperative to be happy all the time. We are sold this idea and it’s a brilliant sales pitch: (1) you should be happy 24–7, and (2) you can buy your way to this state.
In this endless cycle of desire, we are continuously left wanting more without ever finding lasting satisfaction. We chase wealth, power, seniority, possessions, status, in the belief that they will bring us lasting happiness.
To my mind, hedonism is not a great model for true wellbeing. In fact it sucks because every time, it promises anew that this time, it will deliver… And it never does.
Aristotle considered hedonic happiness to be kind of embarrassing, turning humans into moronic pursuers of desire. He was in favor of eudaimonia, which loosely translates as human flourishing and promotes self-realizationas essential to wellbeing.
It crops up in modern psychology (including the work of Maslow) and aligns with the Buddhist view that transient moments of temporary happiness, as well as constant craving and aversion (“I want that! I don’t want that!”) don’t constitute wellbeing.
Eudaimonia occurs when you are aligned with your deeply held values. You feel intensely alive and authentic. It also arises when we deal with challenges from which we grow as a person.
Being happy all the time would be exhausting, not to mention false. That’s why theories about a secret to happiness are usually a huge oversimplification. “Just be grateful”. “Live in the moment”. That kind of often well-intentioned BS.
I’m not saying there’s no space for hedonic behavior — I mean, you should see my Amazon purchase history. And I love enjoying the beautiful pleasures life offers. But we need to understand that all the consumption in the world won’t make us happy.
If we want to be happy, we need to stop chasing the elusive butterfly of ‘happiness’ and go for eudaimonic wellbeing.
Eudaimonic wellbeing encourages us to grow, to seek greater self-awareness and to understand the flaws in our highly-profitable hedonic system. It allows for the full spectrum of human emotion and experience, rather than dogmatically insisting on one-dimensional, shiny happiness.
With the eudaimonic approach we seek to know our true self, align with it, and experience the wellbeing that authenticity brings. That’s the kind of life I want. How about you?