Emotional Happiness & Well-Being

In the Needs Are A Harsh Mistress article, we learned that we often choose ineffective strategies to try and meet our needs. Like the mail order bride we ordered from RussianBabes.com to meet our social/connection needs….Oops. One of the main reasons for our mistake is that we misunderstand happiness. This common misunderstanding is so prevalent, that it deserves an entire article all its own.

Answer this question: What is the goal of your life?

If you’re like most people then you probably answered – “To be happy.”

But when we say the goal of life is to be happy – what do we really mean? Do we want National Lampoon’s “whistling zip-a-dee-doo-dah out of our asses” kind of happiness?  A constant state of emotional bliss? That sounds great… but not very realistic and frankly kind of exhausting.

Happy gingerbread cookies

While experiencing emotional happiness is unquestionably a desirable state, if that’s our goal in life we will likely miss out on the other type of happiness that we primarily want – the sense of peace and contentment that emerges from meeting our needs.

It’s a bit confusing because we commonly use the word happiness to encompass both of these states. But as we shall see they are different. I’m not the first to realize this, Aristotle noted the difference a while back, but he wasn’t much of a blogger so you may not remember. Just in case I’ll go over it again. The first type of happiness – emotional happiness – is an ephemeral positive emotional experience that we would all recognize as “happiness.”  Like how my wife feels when I don’t adhere to the “yellow let it mellow” philosophy and remember to flush the toilet. The second type of happiness is a more enduring state associated with human flourishing that Aristotle termed Eudaimonia. Since I have trouble spelling that I call it well-being. It’s the feeling of contentment that I have because I’m in a relationship where I’m accepted just like I am – no flush and all.

Emotional happiness is experienced acutely in the moment. Whereas, well-being is a sense of peace and contentment that emerges when we meet our needs. Well-being is akin to the sense of vitality that we feel from living a healthy lifestyle. It’s something that arises from an accumulation of actions… not a single event. It’s chronic… not fleeting – and dare I say thatthis is what most people primarily want.

The distinction between happiness and well-being may seem like semantics but it is important not only because they describe different states, but also because these states appear under different circumstances.

Well-being is only achieved when we successfully meet our needs. So far so good… but here is where it gets tricky, so stay with me.

Emotional happiness can be achieved when we meet our needs and even when we don’t meet our needs. It is important to understand this because this is the reason so many of us chase emotional happiness like it’s a heroin addiction – instead of meeting our needs and achieving well-being. Let me explain.

If I’m trying to meet my need for esteem and my strategy is to buy a new car – will I be happy when I drive my new ride off the lot? Damn right I will be. But why? Because I believe that this strategy will meet my need and I just executed the strategy. Bing! Happiness!

Did I increase my well-being? Sadly… no. Buying cars – or anything else – won’t effectively meet my need for esteem. The happiness will mask the discomfort and anxiety that I have from not effectively meeting my need for esteem but only temporarily. The new car high lasts until about the time I make the first payment then I’m left searching for the next new thing to boost my esteem…the next hit. Hmm… how about the cute brunette who sold me the car? I end up constantly chasing the fleeting feeling of emotional  happiness to get relief from the anxiety and disquiet caused by the unmet need.

However, if my strategy for esteem is to set appropriate boundaries in my relationship, with said brunette, in order to ensure my needs get met then I’m well on my way to alleviating my anxiety and replacing it with well-being for the long run.

Yellow Ferrari

You really can’t blame us for falling into the trap of chasing emotional happiness, however. Our culture foists the ideal of immediate gratification and happiness quick-fixes into our beleaguered brains on a daily basis. Ineffective strategies that won’t effectively meet our needs are on constant parade. Lose ten pounds in ten minutes while you make a million dollars from home. I get the allure. The connections are easy to make. If I believe being skinny and rich without lifting a finger = esteem, then it  =  happiness… at least for a few minutes. But it’s exactly the immediate, acute and positive nature of the experience that makes it so addictive.

What’s harder to see, because the rewards are delayed, is how effectively meeting your needs leads to well-being. But it is this gradual sense of overall improving life satisfaction that we ultimately want.

Because if it’s only happiness we want then why not take heroin and do nothing else? The reason we don’t do the Brave New World remix and soma our cares away is because we intuitively know that a life of addiction would… kinda suck. It isn’t consistent with human flourishing – it won’t bring us well-being.

Emotional happiness is a delicious feeling and I’m certainly not advocating any abstinence. I want as much emotional happiness as I can get… but I want it in conjunction with the well-being I get from meeting my needs.

Our life’s goal is to be “happy,” yet that consists of both types of happiness: emotional happiness and well-being. If we get caught making emotional happiness the goal without regard to our long-term well-being… we will consistently achieve neither. It is only by effectively meeting our needs that we can sustain both, and thrive.