Why is it that happiness is fleeting? How could it be that you feel great in the morning yet that contentedness fades away by the evening? If I would ask you about your happiest time during the last month your mind will probably wander to an event or a period of time where you felt good, experienced great pleasure and were filled with positive emotions. The association of happiness with joy is a natural one, and yet happiness consists of much more than these positive feelings. To understand this greater depth of happiness we need to explore positive psychology theory and research where a distinction is made between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness. Such a difference would also make it easier to understand why we experience happiness as a fluctuating emotion.
The first dimension of happiness is hedonistic. This is where a certain event triggers a fabulous feeling – you are eating a slice of pizza which is fresh, hot and delicious, being told by your boss that you’re getting a raise, or receiving praise in school or at work for an assignment. It feels great, and you are glowing inside – it’s a fabulous feeling of joy and pleasure. This aspect of happiness is easy to understand as it is based upon a very simple rule: a maximum of positive emotions and a minimum of negative emotions. In other words, to experience it you need to feel as much joy as possible but sadness or frustration cannot be part of the equation. You might be thinking, “Well, of course they can’t be part of the equation, it’s happiness we’re talking about here”. But as you will see, happiness is a much more complex phenomenon than commonly thought. To better understand this intricacy let’s move on to eudaimonic happiness.
If hedonic happiness is the celebrating, carefree brother, eudaimonic happiness would be its purposeful, aware and deeply contented twin. Eudaimonic happiness asks “Who are you?” followed by “What do you do?” The relationship between the answers determines your experience of eudaimonic happiness. Put simply, if your deeply held values and beliefs are expressed in your life’s choices and activities then you would feel eudaimonia. This is the kind of happiness that is based upon the question of meaning in life. Research in positive psychology shows that people who wake up in the morning with a clear knowledge of their raison d’etre in their life, experience a deep feeling of happiness and satisfaction. Their lives are filled with passion and vitality which are at the heart of eudaimonic happiness.
However, as you might imagine, this journey of eudaimonic happiness is not an easy one. It is filled with challenges, questions, doubts, and the natural obstacles of life. Indeed, it is highly rewarding for long-term happiness, but frequently short-term impact might be difficult as you are struggling to express meaningful insights. Imagine, for example, you are dissatisfied at work. You go through an agonising period of time where you feel that “who you are” and “what you do” are mismatched. You then begin a personal journey of realising what is meaningful to you – and how to achieve it. It might be that you need to take further studies at university, or move down the job ladder into a new position. This process in the short-term is challenging and may instil feelings of frustration, sadness and even pain, as part of this self-actualising experience. And yet it is a natural part of eudaimonic happiness. Going through this development might be challenging but it would probably fill you with a highly satisfying and deep feeling of meaning as you proceed with it. You are investing in your long-term happiness.
The question “why is happiness fleeting?” might be easier to understand now. Hedonic happiness, in its essence, is a brief experience of joy and pleasure which quickly fades away. When you eat a delicious chocolate cake you get short-lived feeling of pleasure spreading through your body – but it is a fleeting one nonetheless. Even the gratification of winning an unexpected amount of money fades away much more quickly than we would have thought. As we equate happiness and pleasure, Eudaimonic happiness offers an instable experience of positive emotions. Eudaimonic happiness, as we have seen, is filled with challenges, making it difficult for us to experience consistent joy. We will no doubt discover moments of great satisfaction and positive emotion, but the difficulties along the way would make it feel as if this positivity comes and goes instead of being constant. And there it is – happiness which we much prefer to feel as never-ending bliss, becomes a fluctuating, fleeting experience. And yet, as we walk our personal path of eudaimonic happiness we discover a new kind of happiness: deep contentment and self-fullfilment. This kind of happiness might be challenging and lack pleasure and joy at certain points in time, and yet it fills us with the burning fire, and passion, of those who live meaningful and purposeful lives.