Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., editor of the Harvard Health Publications, starts his introduction to the 2017 edition “Positive Psychology” with the following quote:
“Most people think that you need to be healthy in order to be happy. But a lot of times it’s the other way around.”
This special health report reviews the existing research on happiness and well-being and introduces evidence-based mind-body practices that promote health and longevity. It show how mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude can lower your stress level and reduce your risk of health problems.
Below we present the current view of well-being and define happiness in terms of its sensual (hedonic) and self-actualizing (eudaimonic) components.
Two Perspectives on Well-Being
Richard Ryan and Edward Ceci, founders of self-determination theory, define well-being as a complex construct that concerns optimal experience and functioning.
“Current research on well-being has been derived from two general perspectives: the hedonic approach, which focuses on happiness and defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance; and the eudaimonic approach, which focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning, rather than simply attaining desires. Eudaimonic well-being is preoccupied with the idea of living in accordance with your true self, what the ancient Greeks called the daimon”.
Erich Fromm, one of the most devoted psychologists to explore and propound happiness, also discussed the difference between the pleasant and the meaningful. He argued that optimal well-being (vivere bene) requires distinguishing “between those needs (desires) that are only subjectively felt and whose satisfaction leads to momentary pleasure, and those needs that are rooted in human nature and whose realization is conducive to human growth and produces eudaimonia, i.e. well-being.”
Interestingly, scholars do not view these two perspectives as mutually exclusive. Evidence suggests that well-being is probably best conceived as a multidimensional phenomenon that includes aspects of both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness.
For example, Waterman (1993) showed empirically that measures of hedonic enjoyment and eudaimonic happiness were strongly correlated, but were nonetheless indicative of distinct types of experience. This means that different sources of well-being can be compatible, and more than that, should be best considered together, rather than separately.
Dr. Martin Seligman, an authority in the field, has been promoting this approach for two decades through books, Ted talks and seminars. He incorporated elements of both perspectives in his model of the "three happy lives".
The happy lives he proposes are the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, with each being distinct from the others.
The Pleasant life relates to hedonic aspects, i.e., the pursuit of pleasure. This is the kind of happiness we may derive from a massage or perhaps indulging a preference for foods or aromas. It is a kind of happiness that is very much of the moment, we feel it as we live it. Experiencing pleasure and positive emotion can help you fight stress in a high-pressure environment.
The Good Life – think Elon Musk, Serena Williams; a life of engagement and flow, when time stops because you’re absorbed in the moment, in what you’re doing. It’s about developing strengths and then applying them to every area of your life.
The meaningful life builds on putting your strengths to work for a higher cause, something you regard as being more important than you. Again, what that something might be will depend upon the individual, but the key consideration is that you identify something and put your strengths to work in service of it.
Relating the three ideas of happiness, Seligman adds that they can combine together to good effect. While a happiness strategy made up entirely of the pursuit of pleasure would appear destined to disappoint, that is not to say active pursuit of pleasure need always be a dead end: “Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure’s the whipped cream and the cherry. Which is to say, the full life – the sum is greater than the parts, if you’ve got all three”.
The Healthy Clinician Newsletter embraces this integrative perspective, promoting practices for both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness. More specifically, we teach you how to enjoy pleasant practices such as massage and skincare not only for their feel-good sensations but also as self-care tools that activate the relaxation response of the body and generate positive emotions such as gratitude and self-compassion.
Another goal of our initiative is to remind medical professionals of their noble calling and help them reconnect with their core values and sense of purpose. As mentioned above, the eudaimonic conception of happiness calls upon us to live in accordance with our true self so that our life activities are congruent with deeply held values. Then we feel intensely alive and authentic, existing as who we really are. When clinicians achieve this ideal, not only do they have healthy lives full of gratitude, joy, and fulfillment, but they bring it to their patients as well.