Game of Dimensions – The Quest For the True Essence of Happiness

Some people think that happiness is the ultimate good and that we should strive to maximize it. These people are called utilitarians. The philosopher John Stuart Mill was raised in a utilitarian manner. Through rewards and punishments, he was taught to enjoy intellectual and social activities. He ended up being a leftist politician, taking part in many debates, as well as writing one of the first feminist works, The Subjection of Women. However, all this work aimed at maximizing happiness made him profoundly unhappy. All the utilitarian, calculative thinking left him dead inside. Fortunately, a change happened when he read the memoirs of Marmontel. When Marmontel described the death of his father, Mill was overcome by emotion and burst into tears. From then on, with the help of poetry, he started to appreciate his inner life. This eventually led him to recognize that there are different kinds of happiness. The joy we feel when reading a beautiful poem is not only different but also greater than the joy a pig feels at rolling in the mud, according to Mill (Rozemond, 2004). Whether you think this is true or not, Mill did reintroduce an important concept in thinking about happiness: that there is not just a single kind of happiness, but that there are several different kinds. This view has not only influenced philosophers but also psychologists thinking about happiness.

The basics: Hedonia
2400 years ago, Aristippus had similar thoughts as Mill. He established that the goal in life would be to experience a maximum of pleasure – so-called hedonic happiness. When we browse through our Instagram it seems like he is still right: good food, nice holidays, parties, and proof of achievements. Everyone is pursuing pleasure every day their entire life, to succeeding, achieve hedonic happiness. This centrality of hedonic happiness in human lives led to a waste of scientific attempts to conceptualize and measure hedonic happiness. This would enable scientists to explain why humans are happy and ultimately enable them to help humankind to become happier – a very ambitious goal.

However, it turned out to be quite difficult to boil hedonic happiness down to one conceptualization. In newer research hedonic happiness is frequently measured as subjective well-being, which is conceptualized as life satisfaction, presence of positive mood, and the absence of negative mood. However many scholars have criticized that subjective well being is not the same as hedonic happiness. Especially since different pleasurable experiences, like good food, elicit different “amounts” of happiness in different people, scholars had to think about ways to bridge these different sensations. Therefore they added the expectancy-value approach which is basically stating that happiness can result out of attaining an expected outcome. 

But as if this would not be complicated enough a new approach to happiness arose, trying to capture concepts like purpose in life, relatedness, and self-actualization. Concepts fundamental to happiness but not part of the hedonic approach, defining happiness as the successful attainment of pleasure. And for sure these concepts are nothing you could post on Instagram. 

A second part to the story: Eudaimonia
The concept of eudaimonia was introduced by Aristotle (Delle Fave, Brdar, Freire, Vella-Brodrick & Wissing, 2011) and is, together with hedonism, still used as one of the two main dimensions of happiness (Ryan, Deci, 2001). There has been some disagreement as to whether eudaimonia, as defined by Aristotle, truly captures the concept of happiness (Kraut, 1979) but many important aspects of his definition are still regarded as important nowadays. The scientific literature uses eudaimonia as the aspect of happiness in which individuals find or look for purpose in life, self-actualization, and personal development (Ryff, 1989). This explains why some people may not enjoy running but doing it makes them happier in the long run. Although it does not provide the same pleasure as eating ice-cream, it can be fulfilling to work on getting healthier. Similarly, a psychologist would be reluctant to advise a client to drink lots of alcohol to make them happier. Even though this could increase their pleasure, it would likely hinder them in their quest for self-actualization and personal growth, eventually making someone’s life more unhappy. It is evident that finding a good balance between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness is important to live a happy life.

Recent developments
Historically, these two types of happiness–eudaimonia and hedonia–have dominated the scientific discourse. In recent years, academics critically reappraised this traditional view on a concept readily embraced by many, yet so hard to capture. This brought the field of happiness research to other disciplines’ attention. Had contemporary economists long not considered happiness in their field, they now started to consider it more closely. This development and their approach brought about the (proposed) addition of another type of happiness, that supposedly is captured neither by eudaimonia, nor by hedonia: evaluative happiness. Evaluative happiness is how one would evaluate one’s happiness, as opposed to the actually experienced happiness. For example, many women report that spending time with their children, in general, is one of the most pleasant activities for them. However, looking at specific instances of spending time with their children, women often report low happiness (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2004). The sentence “I enjoy my kids” is evaluative; “…but last night they were a pain” is about hedonic pleasure. Now, if you do a quick google search on happiness types, you will find that over time, various different/competing yet related categorizations arose. The question is: which one captures the true essence of this emotion many, nowadays, seem to strive for more than anything? Birk, Denefrio, and Dennis-Tiwary (2019) answer this question quite undogmatically. According to them, research on happiness has moved beyond the goal of differentiating types of happiness. They deem this to be a dead-end to begin with, with eudaimonic and hedonic happiness overlapping and the risk of missing out on other important aspects. Instead, they advocate for the consideration of a broad range of factors – from individual (e.g., biological factors or personality) to social ones (e.g., culture) – that impact happiness in all its forms. Ultimately, this may yield the more substantial insights on how to foster individuals’ happiness.

Your turn
Despite the criticism, the traditional multidimensional approach to happiness remains popular in science. Fun fact: Some argue that in all those endeavors, one is not actually looking at happiness, which–per definition–is an emotion, but in fact, at subjective well-being. This is also true for the World Happiness Report in which the authors justify their choice, reasoning that happiness sells better than subjective well-being (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2015). Whether happiness or subjective well-being, to allow you to test the multidimensional approach to happiness yourself, we have created a short game. You will start by filling out a shortened version of the Oxford Happiness scale (Cruise, Lewis, & Guckin, 2006) which will return you a happiness score. After that, you get to “live” through a day full of choices–which may or may not affect your happiness score on different dimensions.