Thursday, June 2, 2011

Towards A Healthier View of Happiness: Human Fulfillment

By Roberto A. Blanco, M.D. 

I believe that mistaking what one would call pleasure or joy with happiness is causing people a lot of unnecessary pain.  In popular culture and the media, “happiness” is the feeling when you open a brand new bottle of soda, when you have a party with your friends, or when you get a new car.  Consumer culture has subtle but noticeable effects on people’s beliefs to the point where most people buy into these images or ideals consciously or unconsciously to some extent.  
But, this is not the meaning of happiness for which we should be striving.  This is because pleasure, while it may be fun, is superficial and impossible to sustain.  Even for people who live a “charmed life," it is impossible to find pleasure or joy in all events in life.  In fact, unless there is some larger or longer-lasting definition of happiness such as human satisfaction that fills our lives, it is likely that we won’t be able to find joy in anything.  Events that should provide joy will lose their effect eventually without some deeper meaning.
This may be why many people become depressed.  A lot of us put pressure on ourselves to be “happy” all of the time.  Because we confuse pleasure for happiness at times, the fact that we are not “happy” all of the time can lead to more dissatisfaction with life or lack of fulfillment.  If happiness equates with pleasure or joy, how can we be happy and happy with ourselves when we are going through difficult but worthwhile transitions?  What about during periods of grief? 
It is often very difficult to sustain superficial happiness especially when the inevitable thoughts of ‘why am I feeling bad?’ or ‘why am I not happy?’ creep into the mind.  These thoughts often cause people to feel guilt and then as if they are failures.  To be joyful and smiling all of the time is just an unrealistic goal and we should not feel bad about ourselves if we happen to be in a difficult stage of life.  We need to keep in mind that it is all part of a larger plan or goal of development, human fulfillment or self-actualization.
The search for a good definition of happiness is not a new idea and certainly not one that I thought of.  Over 300 years before Christ and in his book entitled NicomacheanEthics, Aristotle proposed his definition of happiness to the ancient Greek people and laid out his arguments for the meaning of happiness.  He argued that having true happiness is the best and final aim for human activity.  Aristotle called true happiness “eudaimonia” which was a type of long-lasting happiness more consistent with human fulfillment or satisfaction.  Aristotle also believed that happiness should be human fulfillment and not confused with joy or pleasure when he wrote:

For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day;
similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy.

I agree that human fulfillment is a loftier goal than joy because when someone is having a difficult time or fallen on hard times, they can still be working towards human fulfillment. During these formative or growing experiences, we can still feel as we are fulfilled or fulfilling our own self-actualization even if we aren’t joyous.  When we take into consideration human fulfillment, we no longer need to feel guilty or as failures during difficult times, transitional periods, or episodes of grief.  We begin to see life from the wide angle of human fulfillment rather than from the small picture of pleasure.
Kahlil Gibran, the famous Christian mystic poet from the early 20th century, also believed in eudomainia.  When Almustafa, the all-knowing visitor in the poem The Prophet, answers a woman’s question on pain, he exemplifies this belief in the beauty of human fulfillment and long-lasting satisfaction despite these painful episodes:

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
As people living in a society where mental illness is so common, we must seek to understand happiness and human fulfillment.  In the hopes of making happiness something more meaningful and sustainable, what we should be striving for is an eternal, longer-lasting form of happiness which is known as human fulfillment or as the Greeks called it eudaimonia.  This is because human fulfillment rather than joy or pleasure allows for the different stages of our lives and growth without having to feel guilt or as if something is wrong.  If we make human fulfillment the goal, we will live happier and more satisfying lives.  Now the obvious question becomes, how do we achieve it?
1.  Aristotle (1999).  Nicomachean Ethics. (Martin Ostwald Trans.)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
2. Gibran, Kahlil (1964).  The Prophet .  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


  1. Please note that some Greek scholars have also defined eudaimonia as "human flourishing."

    I'll be writing on ways of achieving human fulfillment in my follow-up post so stay tuned. . .

  2. Pleasure v. Happiness...I love the comparison. Most of what causes pleasure may be a momentary contempt but doesn't bring about a long term form of happiness. Thanks for the notion!


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