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Authentic Happiness - Pleasure, Meaning, and Eudaimonia

Happiness Equals Pleasure?

The American public and most of the rest of the world believe that happiness equals pleasure. A life that maximizes the amount of positive feelings and minimizes the amount of negative ones is a happy life.

So pervasive is this hedonic" view of happiness that when I tell audiences that there are two other paths to happy lives - the Good Life and the Meaningful Life - that need not have any positive emotion at all, they are incredulous. "You are redefining happiness arbitrarily," they say.

The hedonic view of happiness convinces us that Goldie Hawn and Debbie Reynolds are the paradigmatic examples of being happy: smiley, ebullient, cheerful, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

But there are two things radically wrong with this hedonic view. The first is that smiley ebullience is highly heritable and very hard to get more of. This trait is called "positive affectivity" and identical twins are much more likely to share it than are fraternal twins. It is not very changeable, and the best you can hope for from learning skills such as "savoring" and "mindfulness" is to help you live in the upper part of your set range of positive affectivity. The fact that it is normally distributed means that half the population is not very smiley, cheerful, and ebullient, and not likely to become so - even with carefully reading and diligently doing the exercises in Authentic Happiness.

The second problem with the Hollywood view of happiness, as pervasive as it is, is a very poor intellectual provenance. When Aristotle spoke of the "Eudaimonia" - the Good Life - he was not focused on the positive feelings of pleasure - orgasm, a backrub, and a full stomach. Rather, he was concerned with the "pleasures" of contemplation - which do not reside in orgasmic thrills or sensations of warmth, but in deep absorption and immersion, a state we now call flow. And during this state there is neither thought nor feeling. You are simply one with the music.

Three Paths to Happy Lives

So the core thesis in Authentic Happiness is that there are three very different routes to happiness. First, the Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible and having the skills to amplify the pleasures. This is, of course, the only true kind of happiness in the Hollywood view. Second, the Good Life, which consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure, and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life. Third, the Meaningful Life, which consists of using your strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.

Important New Evidence

Until recently, the idea that there are three routes to happiness, two of which do not involve any felt positive emotion at all, was merely an untested theory. Recent unpublished research shows startling results.

Pleasure doesn't add to satisfaction. One of the studies found that both the Good Life and the Meaningful Life were related to life satisfaction: the more Eudaimonia or the more Meaning, the more life satisfaction. Astonishingly, however, the amount of pleasure in life did not add to life satisfaction.

Eudaimonia predicts satisfaction. The other study found that eudaimonic pursuits were significantly correlated with lifesatisfaction, whereas hedonic pursuits were not.

Cheerfulness not needed to be happy. The upshot of these two studies, done independently, is that successfully pursuing pleasure does not necessarily lead to life satisfaction, but successfully pursuing the Good Life and the Meaningful Life does lead to higher life satisfaction. —Adapted, with permission, from an article by Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, at

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