For much of history, the idea of happiness was construed as a thing to be obtained – a platonic ideal to be sought through a life in accordance with various philosophical views.
Happiness was to be pursued, rather than experienced.
This view reached is pinnacle in western culture, when Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that happiness (for them, hedonism) could be understood quantitatively through a Hedonic Calculus that maximized the hedonism obtained from actions. People could derive the experiences that are likely to lead to happiness and engineer their lives towards seeking them.
Pause for a second and think about this. How good are you at predicting happiness?
For most of us, we are startlingly unable to accurately predict what will make us happy. This has led Daniel Gilbert, a renown Harvard psychologist, to propose that happiness shouldn’t be pursued. Rather, it should be stumbled upon.
Sure, we may be able to approximate the likelihood of us experiencing an event in a happy state, but this is little more than a post-hoc attempt to predict the future based on past experiences. This goes again the role of novelty in happiness: the idea that we are biologically wired to seek growth and new experiences in our world.
So perhaps a better question to ask is: how can you engineer your life to increase the likelihood of stumbling on happiness?
The answer comes in almost direct opposition to Bentham’s and Mill’s Hedonic Calculus. It’s called eudaemonic well-being and is one of the most important concepts in modern psychology.
The core tenant of eudaemonic well-being is summarized nicely in Neitzsche’s aphorism He who has a why can survive any how.
Through structuring your life around meaningful goals, purpose and personal desire, we are able to reframe almost any experience into a positive interpretation – experiences are seen as being necessary to achieve our goal. While Neitzsche structured his aphorism to emphasize how purpose can help people persist in the face of adversity, it has the corresponding effect of generating experiences that lead to greater happiness.
Each moment of our life is seem as being a progression, a necessary stepping stone to further growth and self actualization.
Research in positive psychology has supported this view, showing that people who organize their life around developing eudaemonic well-being (that is, have both long and short term life goals) are more autonomous, healthy and perhaps most important, happy.