Life potentials The hedonic paradox

The hedonic paradox is the notion that by pursuing happiness itself, one makes it more distant, whereas by pursuing something else, one can inadvertently bring it closer.

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The Hedonic Paradox: If you want to be happy, don’t pursue it

Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.”

“The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.”

And according to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

“Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you”.

The Hedonic Paradox (also called the Pleasure Paradox) states that if you seek pleasure or happiness for the sole purpose of achieving it for yourself, you will fail. Instead, you must pursue other goals that will bring you happiness or pleasure as a side-effect.

Did that confuse you?

Happiness is not his goal, but a side effect of doing something bigger than yourself. To achieve it, you must not go after it directly, but engage in other things that are meaningful and is not linked to trying to be happy.

Happiness is not a goal to be achieved. It is a result.

Why people who do things for others are happier than hedonists

Hedonists are all about seeking activities that give them pleasure. They do things because they think it will make them happy. They buy the latest car, wear the most fashionable clothes, go to the spa and get pampered, buy the most expensive things, eat the finest food – all in the pursuit of pleasure or happiness.

But as you know, the pleasure that these activities provide are fleeting, and will fade in time. Once the excitement of novelty passes, so will the pleasure it once provided. The hedonist is then forced to continually look for other sources of pleasure, never quite achieving the long term happiness that has become elusive.

On the other hand, altruistic activities, or doing things for others, seem to cause greater happiness. Using panel data, Thoits and Hewitt (2001) showed that volunteer work causes greater happiness and life-satisfaction, increases self-esteem and even improves physical health.

In another study, Boehm and Lyubomirsky (2006) reports that students who were asked to perform random acts of kindness during a ten-week period, achieved a significant improvement in happiness levels. They maintained this state even months after the experiment. The acts of kindness were nothing more than opening the door for an elder, or doing the dishes for a roommate.

Now that we know that happiness cannot be pursued directly, let’s focus instead on enriching our lives with activities and relationships that give meaning to our lives.

Read more articles on Life Potentials


Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile

Read about how you can beat the Hedonic Paradox in the book “Happiness - the science behind your smile” by Professor of Behavioural Science Daniel Nettle.

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