• Oct 31, 2016
  • by Stacy Fassberg

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 instill 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-fulfillment. 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.

 

Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist and a senior lecturer at the University of East London. His work is focusing on Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Spirituality. You can find his workshops, books, and scientific work on his website: http://www.awarenessisfreedom.com/