In the ancient Greek language, “happiness” has no single translation. In fact, given context and specific word usage, ancient Greeks defined many different flavors and types of happiness. The one size fits all definition for happiness in contemporary English would be better replaced by more nuance as the ancient Greeks did. In ancient Greece, eudaemonia and hedonia represent two different forms of well-being and happiness. And while both of these words (as you can probably tell) have analogous terms in English that bear similar meanings to the ancient Greek counterparts, colloquially we’ve ditched the nuance in pursuit of happiness. However, what kind of happiness we pursue makes a big difference in our life satisfaction.
Hedonia, otherwise known as hedonism often implies excess and can be defined as a presence of positive affect with an avoidance of negative affect within philosophical studies. Hedonism is about “feeling good” and satisfying your “id” — your baser pleasures. Hedonism means succumbing to every sense of bliss and avoidance of everything negative, placing yourself and your immediate pleasure on a pedestal. This can seem like a bad idea when described this way, but we engage in hedonistic pleasure all the time — we overeat our favorite foods, we indulge in alcohol or tobacco, everyone has an indulgence that plays into their hedonistic desires, whether we want to admit it or not. The problem with hedonism isn’t when people occasionally indulge in their desire for food, sex, or mind-altering substances, but when people use fulfilling these hedonic pleasures as a replacement for a fulfilling life. The phrase “money doesn’t buy happiness” reflects our deep-seated realizations that hedonic pleasure isn’t enough for us to feel satisfied with our lives.
This is why the Greeks (smart philosophers that they were) came up with the complementary concept of eudaemonia. This word doesn’t simply describe “happiness” but the deep sense of inner peace that comes with living a fulfilling life. Aristotle expanded upon this in his writings, stating that, “eudaimonia is the highest human good, the only human good that is desirable for its own sake”(Brittanica). This clearly has a very different definition from hedonism, and implies that this deep satisfaction does not originate in the material world. Eudaemonia implies an intrinsic happiness detached from ego-satisfying pleasure.
When we search for happiness, many of us are probably talking about different things, which is why no one can seem to agree. Although, why people want to agree is beyond me. But hey, I’m argumentative by nature, I guess.
I’ve known people both wealthy and poor who were unhappy. Many of the wealthy people who are unhappy fill their lives with useless material trinkets or the most expensive travel “experiences” (which I’ve talked about being commodified in previous posts) yet do nothing that might bring about eudaemonia like integrating into a community of regular people, giving money directly to those in need (not just tossing it away without any connection), deciding that they have “enough” of anything and ceasing to expand their physical possessions.
Many people I know who are poor/working class and unhappy recognize that more material things would vastly improve their stress levels and allow them to have more comfortable living situations. This is not hedonic, this is an innate desire for safety and comfort. Eudaemonia for people in difficult financial situations might be because they desire more hedonic pleasures to live above their means or to indulge. I won’t deny that. But for many, this sense of lack comes from a desire to do more with their time for themselves, family, or others that they simply aren’t allowed.
This might lead anyone to draw the conclusion that people without are closer to happiness because they have a true understanding of what they are lacking for a fulfilled life but I don’t think the world is as simple as poor people being good and close to happiness while rich people are not. Although, Mother Teresa definitely believed this (and by extension many Catholics and Christians).
Mother Teresa’s social ethic is simplistic because most poor people (and “middle class” if we’re suffering from that today) know somebody who might be technically on-paper poor, but they live in the lap of luxury, buying what they can’t afford, living large, and at the end of the day still deeply, deeply unsatisfied. People can agree they know someone like this, whether or not this is actually very common, or confirmation bias is unclear to me. However, I want to address it as it might be on anyone’s mind who’s reading this. But keep in mind that excess spending is a myth of what causes the most bankruptcies and we’re very attached even if most bankruptcies are actually caused by medical expenses, not women eating Maruchan in mink coats.
In our capitalist economy, (don’t groan, it’s a definition of an economy so calm your tits), capitalists naturally inform a lot of our cultural perceptions. This is why we have these myths about what makes people poor. Capitalism is why Americans on average see 4,000 advertisements every day. We have myths about what makes us happy or unhappy because advertisements need to sell us on the belief that some material thing will be the one thing that makes a difference — whether it’s a yacht or an $8 tube of Maybelline mascara.
We’re trained to think about happiness a specific way so that one definition (having stuff) nearly becomes the “catch all” definition and we are marketed hedonism as a suitable replacement for eudaemonia. Both rich and poor indulge in this propaganda. Poor people are told that hedonism — drugs, alcohol, credit card debt, an excess of material comforts — are their tickets to happiness. Rich people are fed propaganda that wealth will insulate them from eudaemonic need to build genuine connection with others as well as their eudaemonic need for a more equitable society.
We aren’t doomed to live dissatisfied lives because of this and I would argue that renouncing hedonism for complete stoicism is both unrealistic and unnatural. Some hedonism could be a part of eudaemonia, but to subsume eudaemonia gives hedonism a masochistic, malignant edge. Rather than focusing on what we should “eliminate”, when it comes to habits, I always find it easier to add good habits than to break bad ones, in accordance with James’ Clear’s philosophy.
Rather than achieving hedonism or eudaemonia, it would be much simpler to work towards balance. I can wrap my head around adding habits to my life that bring me closer to a sense of fulfillment and happiness. This will be different for each person but for me, this includes spending time meditating, gardening and connecting with the earth, as well as community service initiatives regarding women, Caribbean people and social inequities. What do you think you have more of in your life? Do you consider yourself happy and if not, what’s missing? Comment down below and let me know.