How to Cultivate Genuine Happiness
By: Kristina Dragnea, Psychotherapist Mindful Maelstrom
For as long as we have existed, humans have been on a pursuit for this elusive state referred to as happiness. Although seemingly subjective and arbitrary in nature, what feels like a precise formula for happiness ends up being a twisted roadmap to never reaching it at all.
We are all privy to this formula and can find it anywhere we look, but few have the courage to trade in what immediately feels good for the patience and perseverance it takes to attain an enduring state of happiness. But why? Read on to find out…
According to the ancient Roman and Greek Philosophers, in particular Aristotle, happiness is more of a life pursuit of living virtuously or to one’s full potential than just finding an arbitrary form of happiness. What he meant by living virtuously was embodying your greatest strengths and living up to them! Self-actualizing to our most authentic self and living with integrity, if you will.
Let’s place happiness on a spectrum where pleasure (or hedonic happiness) is on one end, and gratification (or eudaemonic happiness) is on the other.
You can probably guess what you might find on the hedonic side. Yup, sex, drugs & rock ’n roll - among other things. This encapsulates the immediate sensorially tantalizing activities like taking drugs, drinking alcohol, pursuing and prioritizing money and sex. Entertainment, spending copious amounts of time watching tv, internet surfing and scrolling social media, and even pursuing beauty for vanities sake, are hedonic. Oh and don’t forget, behaving to receive external validation, shopping, gossiping about friends, and infatuating love.
This end of the spectrum delivers immediate pleasure and seemingly equates to feeling happy in the moment, but it comes with a high cost (withdrawal, procrastination anxiety or depression). The happiness or pleasure derived from these activities are quite fleeting and typically leave you feeling lower in affect and lesser in energy than when you began! You find yourself in an endless cycle of pleasure seeking behaviours followed by an overwhelming feeling of emptiness.
In the middle of the spectrum you find things like physical exercise, hobbies, and physical growth. Not to be confused with the pursuit of beauty, but rather, investing in your physical body for the purpose of optimal health and reaching your potential strength and flexibility. Another way of finding lasting fulfillment in this area of the spectrum is through cultivating strong relationships with friends and family. Deeper, stronger and more intimate relationships with a few great friends (not instagram friends), and building and strengthening relationships with family has the potential to increase levels of fulfillment exponentially.
If you were to shift even slightly to doing more of these things and trade them for the hedonic grab bag of pleasures you might gravitate towards, you would already be improving and feeling better.
The other end of the spectrum, the eudaemonic side, is where it’s at. This is the most interesting part, the part that (if cultivated) will deliver the highest degree of lasting and fulfilling happiness! This is also the part of the spectrum that most people glide over, perhaps dabble in, but don't really stay in long enough to feel the effects, despite its promising outcome
BUT WHY?!?! You ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s difficult to attain, takes a lot of effort, work and down right painstaking blood, sweat and tears. Additionally, it’s not the most romanticized, it’s not quick, and it seemingly offers no immediate pleasure. Simply put, it seems like no fun.
As Aristotle put it, this end encompasses a whole slew of (some might say) noble pursuits or virtues. Virtues such as cultivating one’s education, not only in school, but rather, embarking on a lifelong journey of learning, being playfully curious and feeling fulfilled by evolving your intelligence. On top of all this, we have creating excellent work and experiencing states of flow. This means loving what you do for work and finding that flow that channels through you when you do it. They say if you love what you do, you never work a day of your life.
Inner development and self acceptance is also eudaemonic. This is any type of inner work that you do, like going to therapy, journaling, shadow work, meditating, workshops, anything you can do to build your self-worth and self-acceptance. If you truly want to be happy and feel love you have to direct that happiness, acceptance and love inwardly!
Then, we have what Aristotle referred to as liberality. This is basically kindness, big-heartedness, being generous and engaging in charity work, all-in-all, giving to others, 'cuz' sharing is caring. In fact, empirical evidence shows that being kind to others reaps the highest pleasure benefits in our brain compared to even the initial high one might feel when taking drugs.
Then there is gratitude, of course, the mental state of humans is positively correlated to the degree in which we experience gratitude and gratefulness, for even the little things or kind gestures offered by strangers.
Integrity is one of the last virtues, and it’s a big one. What does it mean to live a life of integrity? Is it subjective in nature? Nope, not really. Living with integrity means doing what you say you will, saying what you mean and living your highest values with strong conviction. Like Tony Montana put it: “All I have in this life is my word and my balls, and I don’t break them for nobody”. Well kinda like that!
Even though integrity is not flashy, it’s imperative to optimal mental health. Think about it this way, if you constantly promised a child to take them to an amusement park but never came through, would that child still trust you? How might they feel towards you? At what point would they just give up on you and not take you seriously? This is what we do to ourselves every single time we make a commitment, then break it. I’m not just talking about those commitments we make to others, but also and arguably more important, those we make to ourselves. What is more important than trusting and relying wholeheartedly on yourself? Well not a whole lot.
Lastly, we have the biggest, most incredibly predictable and reliable source of happiness. It’s something so minimal, so simple, so je ne sais quoi, that it almost sounds unreal. Have you guessed it yet?
Yup, just being. Not having or wanting, craving or gushing. It’s just being. Right here and right now. This can be described more as a state of contentment, just happy for what/who/where you are and actually reaping the overwhelming fulfillment of it all.
So now, I want to propose we all do one thing: take a look at this spectrum, and find what ratio of things you lay in the lower spectrum, and try little by little to move them to the middle and the highest end of the spectrum. Let me know how that works and stay tuned to instagram for our happiness challenge. As cliche as it sounds, I dare you to embark with us!
Ackrill, J. (1981). Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A comprehensive introduction to Aristotle.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (2004), ed. Hugh Treddenick. London: Penguin.