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What makes us happy?

We are all in search of it, but what makes one person happy will not be the same for another. And we are not alone in being unable to agree on what makes us happy, as nor can psychologists or philosophers.

Behind the long-standing debate on defining how we achieve happiness are two popular concepts. The first we may be familiar with, hedonic happiness, which we associate with pleasure and enjoyment (good meals or fun events). The second and perhaps the less well-known concept is of eudaemonic happiness, which can be gained through finding meaning and purpose in life.

Whilst it may be new news to us, the concept of eudaemonic happiness has been around for millennia. First proposed by Aristotle, as ‘living a life according to our virtues, where striving to meet our potential and be our best selves, leads us to feelings of greater purpose and meaning’, he suggested that eudaemonic happiness is the key to leading a long-term life of happiness, wellbeing and fulfilment.

When it comes to how happy we feel, research has shown that we have what is called a ‘set point’ of happiness, to which we keep returning. So, whilst we may feel spikes in (hedonistic) happiness around events, the theory is that we soon after return to our set point. What’s more this theory suggests that our set point is determined 50% by genetics, 10% circumstances outside of our own control (where we are born for example), leaving only 40% under our own control.

If this is right and largely, we are out of control of our own happiness, then what’s the best way to use the 40% that we do control?

Psychologists argue that a combination of both hedonic and eudaemonic happiness are what is needed for enduring feelings of fulfilment. It is also suggested that as time goes on for us, we may find the need for more eudaemonic happiness in our lives.

Whilst hedonism sometimes gets a bad rap as perhaps being ‘short-termism’, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as research links this type of happiness to staving off negative emotion, stress, and depression. Advocates of eudaemonic happiness, in contrast, state that wellbeing and happiness are ‘ongoing processes’, rather than end states. Furthermore, if you’re pursuing (eudaemonic) happiness through finding activities that provide meaning and fulfilment, you might well also find this is a way of maintaining balance between spikes of hedonism.

So, it seems that both matter. In what proportion is for you to decide, but you may find the dynamic alters over time so a review of the what’s and how’s might be useful.

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