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Eudaemonia: A Better Kind of Happy

Most decisions we make can be traced back to our desire to be happy.

But happiness is a fuzzy term, and is often—incorrectly, I would argue—conflated with a collection of other terms: fulfillment, pleasure, contentment, and satisfaction, among them.

Homing in on this difference is important, though, because it allows us to better refine our actions so that we actually move in the direction we think we’re moving; so that we truly pursue what we tell ourselves we’re pursuing.

There’s a philosophical concept, eudaemonia, that is particularly useful for the purposes of discussion.

Eudaemonia can be seen as a metric by which one can measure the relative goodness or positivity of their life. It’s often positioned as a counterpoint to hedonism, though arguably the two overlap in some important ways, and are not entirely oppositional.

Hedonism states, in essence, that pleasure and happiness are the main purpose of any person’s life. And therefore, anything that you might do to achieve a greater level of pleasure is fair game: that’s the correct path to take.

There are, of course, downsides to this perspective. Especially when it comes to our relationships with others and our functionality within our societies.

Eudaemonia, in contrast, focuses less on pleasure-related happiness and more on a broad sense of wellness.

What that means in practice is rather than dedicating oneself to the reckless pursuit of pleasurable sensations and bursts of dopamine, it’s more ideal to live a virtuous life, to develop into an increasingly refined version of oneself, and to enjoy the process of self-honing that leads to growth.

There are many sub-perspectives that have splintered from this main concept—the Stoics believed that the virtue component of eudaemonia is itself the beginning and end of fulfillment potential, and therefore any external sources of pleasure should be avoided, while the Aristotelian view allows for a sense of fulfillment in personal development that includes one’s ability to appreciate art, beauty, nature, etc—but the contrast with hedonism is the greater contrast. This is about gratification derived from personal growth and refinement, not transient happiness from any random activity that happens to trigger biological surges in pleasure-chemicals.

This term has proved immensely useful for me in describing why I live the way I live to people who find my lifestyle framework puzzling.

“Why do you spend so much of your free time working?” they ask me. “Isn’t that unhealthy, never stepping away from your job? Never taking a vacation?”

The truth of the matter, though, is that I absolute love the work I do. If I never made a cent from writing, I’d still be writing. If I wasn’t able to make a part-time career out of podcasting, I’d make my career elsewhere, and spend my off-hours making my podcast.

Further, my work and how I approach it has less to do with the particulars of the tasks I perform—the writing of words, the recording of audio—and more to do with what those tasks do for me. It’s about the growth I experience by going through these motions and intellectually engaging with the associated habits and rituals, and the ability to graze widely on different fields of inquiry of realms of exploration.

The challenges that come tandem with such work are frictions that help me sand myself into shape. The ever-present concern that I’ll mess it all up, reveal myself as a fraud, succumb to the pressures of working for myself: that stresses my mind-muscles, helping them grow stronger and more resilient.

There’s a satisfaction in difficult work that bears valuable fruit. There’s fulfillment in engaging with that work. There are bursts of pleasure-chemicals, certainly, but most of the joy derived from such effort is unrelated to the joy experienced when biting into a delicious piece of fruit or having sex with an attractive partner. It’s eudaemonian happiness, not hedonistic happiness.

Importantly, as I mentioned, there are crossovers between the two. Neither type of happiness is worthless, and it’s possible, for instance, to take a certain hedonistic joy in viewing a beautiful piece of artwork while also experiencing eudaemonian growth from that exposure; learning more about the medium, appreciating the skill that went into creating it, understanding more about the craft through this new exposure to it, and becoming a more well-rounded person who has seen and experienced more things.

We live in a world that, in many ways, on many levels, and for many reasons, more casually recognizes and celebrates hedonistic pleasures. This is partly because they’re easier to provide, to mass produce, but also because they smoothly align with our means of distributing such pleasures. Hedonistic joy is something you can purchase, while eudaemonian fulfillment is something you generally have to accomplish: it’s trickier to passively order online in the few hours you have available after leaving the office and before going to bed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with pleasure for the sake of pleasure, but the benefits seem to be longer-lasting, and the sense of fulfillment seems to be deeper-seated, when you spent at least a portion of your time and energy working on your internal happiness production machinery.

Doing so is no guarantee that you’ll feel wonderful all day, every day, but it does make it more likely that you’ll control a steady drip of fulfillment, rather than relying on the hedonic treadmill of consumption, one-off experiential highs, and thoughtless thrill-seeking.

This essay was written by our good friend Colin Wright, aka “The Third Minimalist.” You can join Colin during his year-long adventure across North America: The Becoming Tour. Click the link to find out when he’ll be in your city.