What the Greeks can teach us about happiness

By Nell Derick Debevoise

Even after getting what we always wanted in the form of money, power, prestige, influence, or even freedom, many of us crave something more. Despite this craving, a lot of us still consider ourselves ‘happy’ most of the time. Of course some feel that sense of craving and don’t feel happy. But the vast majority of us would prefer to be happier. But what would actually get us there?

Ample scientific research shows that ‘happy’ people live longer, experience better mental health, and are more successful at work. Today, happiness is declining, or stagnating at best, according to the World Happiness Report, around the world. So it is worth analyzing exactly what form of happiness will bring these worthy outcomes.

Where does happiness come from?

If you want to be happier, where do you start? First, make a short list of the things that make you happy and spend some time pondering the list. Are these aspects of your happiness something others have noticed in you? What experiences cause these feelings of happiness? In other words, are these externally or internally validated sources of happiness? 

And second, are these inputs of happiness  short-term and pleasure-driven, like that derived from an ice cream cone, cute puppy, great golf shot, or new pair of shoes? Or is it a deeper version of fulfillment, like when you apologize for something you were feeling badly about, help someone learn a new skill, or hire someone for their new, dream job? 

Words from the Ancient Greek are the best labels for these two categories. Hedonia—from which we get hedonism—describes happiness as pleasure. And eudaimonia covers the second: the activities related to the pursuit of virtue, personal growth, and contributing to the greater good.

Let’s consider each of these features in greater detail.


We Get Happy Inside Out 

Certainly, we may pursue happiness through externally validated activities. We might go after what we are ‘told’ will make us happy: doing yoga on the top of a mountain, custom cocktails for a big night out, or even love. But if we hate yoga, don’t enjoy nightlife, or aren’t interested in an intimate relationship, would doing these things actually increase our happiness?

At the other end of this spectrum lie the behaviors and activities that are pleasing to us. We may find that being outside, competing in recreational games, studying foreign languages, or weaving baskets really makes our heart sing. Or doing yoga on top of a mountain, going out on the town, or nurturing love in our intimate relationship. 

What’s important is that we honestly identify the activities that resonate with us as individuals. And then invest our time, energy, attention, and money in doing those things. Noting of course, that the extent to which they make us happy changes throughout the week, year, or life. But the activities that increase your happiness are the ones that work for you.

Pleasure does not equal happiness

In the hedonistic end of the happiness spectrum, the focus is pleasure. Hedonia is the pursuit of immediate gratification. It’s the joy found in the hedonistic pleasures of life – the delectable taste of gourmet cuisine, the ephemeral thrill of entertainment, or the warmth of a sun-kissed afternoon.

In the fast-paced world we inhabit, hedonia often becomes the default mode of pursuit. Indeed, an internet search for happiness retrieves these hedonic versions of happiness: grinning groups of colleagues high-fiving, friends hiking into the sunset, ice cream or cake being served.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies eudaimonia, a notion central to Aristotle’s philosophy. He described eudaimonia as “the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” It’s the pursuit of a life well-lived, flourishing not merely in fleeting moments of joy but in the profound satisfaction derived from living in accordance with one’s true nature.

Eudaimonia derives from the pursuit of virtue, personal growth, and contributing to the greater good. It provides an enduring sense of well-being derived from living authentically and aligning one’s actions with their core values. Unlike hedonia, which often dances on the surface of life’s experiences, eudaimonia invites us to explore the depths of our existence, asking profound questions about the meaning and purpose of our journey.

Insights from the happiness framework

The happiness worth pursuing sits in the top right of this framework. These internally validated, eudaimonia-linked activities that provide robust, sustainable fulfillment. But what about treats? Pleasure has certainly been known to accompany genuine happiness. Nothing wrong, then, with indulging in some of those top-left activities, following the crowd for an ice cream cone, golf outing, puppy cuddles, or pedicure.

The bottom right activities are recognized as satisfying by other people or society at large— think naming a building, donating your organs, or tutoring a student. These can be a worthwhile way to invest time, particularly as your journey to fulfillment evolves. After all, experimenting with the things that are ‘supposed’ to make us happy can reveal what does—and doesn’t—actually make us happy. 

After experimenting with those bottom right activities, you may elevate them to the upper right of this diagram, as worthy investments for you. But be honest with yourself. If they don’t make you happier, consider how you could re-invest that time, energy, attention, or money in something that really does. 

But the bottom left is simply a waste of time. Activities that other people, or society at large, says will make you happy, and serve no benefit to humanity, fit squarely in the ‘stop doing’ category. There is no benefit to you or anyone else in mindlessly turning to Netflix or cookies or a drink or yet another workout—any of the things we use to avoid or numb painful feelings or thoughts—to try to feel happier. 

The problem is not inherent to those activities, but rather the lack of intentionally choosing them to feel truly and sustainably happier. If they actually make you happier over time, or somehow authentically serve others (by providing company, for example), then carry on! But if you feel the same or worse after the scrolling or binging or smorgasbord, just don’t do it. 

What kind of happiness do you want

Do a quick brainstorm of what you’ve done to make yourself happy in the last month. Now map it to this framework. Where do your investments fall? Are there adjustments you could make to these activities to increase your chance of achieving true, internally validated happiness? 

What externally validated, hedonistic activities are you wasting your time on? If you were to stop doing them, what deeply fulfilling, even legacy-building, activity might you take on? And how happy would that actually make you?