Happy… What does it mean, really? Harvard’s lecturer in positive psychology Tal Ben Shahar argues that ‘happiness’ is our ultimate goal in a sense that every other ambition, wish and desire are pursued to make us happy in the end. Career advancement, business or artistic success, fulfilment, buying a house, getting married, having a baby are just stepping stones to the ultimate raison d’être: happiness.
In his book Happier Tal Ben Shahar also talks about four different behavioural characteristics or lifestyles, resulting in different happiness profiles. This idea drew my attention.
Consider a hedonist, living for pleasure today, not thinking about tomorrow. Giving in to a craving for a fast food meal, having two helpings of artery-clogging chocolate cake or taking recreational drugs are examples of hedonistic behaviour. Spending the entire salary on dining out and entertainment each month, adding nothing to the savings account, is also characteristic of a hedonist.
Another type of lifestyle is ‘no pain no gain’. Think of an investment banker or a corporate lawyer, dreading every single Monday morning and dreaming of retiring when he could finally go travelling, spend more time with kids, get into shape, enjoy a long-abandoned hobby... Think of serial dieters, munching on a celery stick for lunch, believing that the latest fad would make them happier tomorrow. This lifestyle accepts hardship today in favour of riches tomorrow.
And some people are fatalists, believing that they can do nothing about their lot in life. Their happy days are all in the past, and now they are stuck in an unhappy relationship, in a job they hate, in a place they are bored of. Fatalists convince themselves that they have no talents beyond their current occupation, that any changes would be fruitless, that dreaming is reckless.
None of these behavioural patterns sounds appealing, although each one is painfully recognisable. The ultimate lifestyle would be balanced happiness: to be happy today and happy tomorrow. But is it possible without compromises?
Think of cooking a delicious healthy dinner from scratch and licking the plates from joy. If a meal tastes good today and delivers healthy nutrients, it ticks the right boxes. Think of an author who enjoys the process of writing with a potential future benefit of getting good reviews for her book and perhaps earning a literary prize. Think of any calling which routinely brings pleasure and fulfilment, as well as earning money, prestige and kudos tomorrow.
Inspecting my own life as a pie chart with each wedge representing one of the four lifestyles, I think that I am probably half hedonist, sometimes falling into the ‘no pain, no gain’ pattern, but increasingly steering my life towards the balanced happiness, writing, telling life stories, getting fitter and healthier. For example, you won’t find me running on a treadmill, no matter what the associated benefits may be. I only ever run outdoors and love it.
Granted, sometimes you need to have that gelato and get merry in the bar; sometimes you also need to endure pain and struggle to achieve a goal. However, I do believe that enjoying today and doing good for tomorrow is the true, most sustainable, balanced version of happiness. And this is what I mean by wishing you a Happy New Year!