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Happiness on purpose (or breaking free of the hedonic treadmill)

Let me ask you a question: does it sometimes feel like finding happiness is about as easy as herding cats? You seem to find it and take hold of it, but then it slips right through your fingers, leaving you back in the doldrums and in search of that 'thing' to lift your spirits.

Well, if that sounds familiar, the first thing to say is that you are not on your own. And the second thing to say is that there's a reason happiness can appear to be so elusive.

That reason is linked to the concept of 'hedonism'. The dictionary says that hedonism is the school of thought that argues that 'pleasure and suffering are the only components of well-being [or, in other words, happiness]'. On that line of thinking, if you feel pleasure, you are happy; and if you don't experience pleasure, you are most likely at best not happy, but probably you are erring towards miserable, maybe even unhappy.

And out of hedonism comes the term 'hedonic', which the dictionary defines as 'relating to, characterized by, or considered in terms of pleasant (or unpleasant) sensations'. Which, in turn, leads onto the idea of 'Hedonic Well-being', which essentially states that well-being is found through the perpetual experience of pleasure - no pleasure means no happiness.

And maybe that would not be so bad if you could find just one or two things that give rise to sensations of pleasure in you, and then find lasting happiness. But, according to the Hedonic Well-being model, that's where there's something of a sting in the tail.

You see, that initial surge of pleasure you feel from particular experiences or situations gradually fades, until you return to 'normal' levels. And that means that you need another 'pleasure hit' to get that happiness high again. And so it goes on. In fact, there's a term for it: the Hedonic Treadmill.

So, if you think about it, as a theory, Hedonic Well-being stacks up, and in no small part helps to explain why happiness seems always just out of reach, or to constantly slip from your grasp; and why the pursuit of happiness seems like a never-ending quest.

But is that the only route to well-being, or is there another way? 

There's a scene in the movie 'The Life of David gale', where Professor David Gale neatly sets out how Hedonic Well-being works, but then offers an alternative that comes in the shape of a life spent pursuing 'ideals and ideas'. So, what does a life pursuing ideals and ideas actually look like?

Well, the dictionary defines 'ideals' as being 'a principle, idea, or standard that seems very good and worth trying to achieve'. Based on that, it seems to me that to live in the pursuit of ideals and ideas is to pursue what matters to you. Or, to put it another way, to live with meaning and purpose - a life aligned to your strengths and to your values. And that is where the Eudaemonic Well-being model comes in.

The Eudaemonic Well-being model focuses on meaning and self-realisation, and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which you are fully functioning; or, to put it another way - whether or not you are living a life of meaning and purpose - one which lines up with your values - with your best self.

You may find that purpose and meaning through personal development and growth. You may focus on building increased awareness and mindfulness. You may even engage in pro-social activities like volunteering, community projects or simply being a 'good neighbour'. But however you do it, in the Eudaemonic model of well-being one thing is for certain - the activities you engage in will be focused on things that have purpose and meaning for you.

And sure, as you engage in activities that are filled with purpose and meaning, you may not get the immediate hit of happiness that, say, watching your team win the game may give you - with Eudaemonic Well-being, happiness is often much more of a slow-burn. But the thing with a slow burn is that where the instant rush of hedonic happiness fades, the gently increasing happiness that purpose and meaning bring tends to be much more enduring.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking pleasure - who doesn't look forward to a nice meal with a loved one, winning the match, spending time with friends and the like? But the trick is to make sure that pleasure is the icing and not the cake.

The trick is to live with purpose and meaning - in a way that lines up with your values. Because then, you have a firm happiness foundation that can persist even when things aren't going your way. And, when things do turn to your favour, life gets even better.

So, how about it? If you feel your pursuit of happiness is never-ending, and seemingly in vain, how about you turn the tables? How about you stop chasing happiness and allow happiness to come to you, instead?

This week, think about what matters to you most in life. It may be family, or the environment, your career, creativity, a sense of belonging, or a whole host of other possibilities. And then, once you have figured out what matters most to you - what your number one value is - think of just one thing that you can do in the next seven days that will help you to live in a way that is aligned to that value.

For example, if family matters most to you, what could you do to tap into that value? Could you ring-fence time to be truly present with your family, or arrange a trip out, or maybe simply send a text or an email to a family member you haven't seen in a while?

I think you'll be amazed at the difference pursuing meaning and purpose, rather than pleasure for the sake of pleasure, makes. And, if you want a hand figuring out what matters most to you in life, we have an excellent free course in the Live a Big Life Academy. Just visit, sign up for free membership, and take the 'Uncovering the Meaning of [Your] Life' course. And, remember, it's 100% free.

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