Have you ever been called a demon? I have; by my Mom no less. During my growing years, if any of my 11 sibs or I misbehaved, it wasn’t uncommon for her to say, “demonyo ka (you demon).”
The word ‘demon’ however, in its original Greek sense, meant ‘replete with knowledge.’ It is derived from the Greek, ‘daimon,’ which meant an attendant spirit; a genius; a Divinity or a manifestation of divine power. If I had shared this with her back then she would probably have countered with, “pilosopo (philosopher)!” So in her loving memory I would like to share the philosophy and practice of happiness.
There is a classical Greek term for happiness that is derived from ‘daimon,’ called ‘eudaimonia.’ The term today includes concepts such as the pursuit, manifestation, and experience of virtue, personal growth, self –actualization, flourishing, excellence, and meaning in life. It is about facing your demons, i.e. your genetic and God-given talents, and using them to make your life as meaningful and as helpful as it can be.
This view of happiness was articulated by Plato who felt that truly happy people are those who are moral; those who practice the cardinal virtues of prudence and wisdom, justice and fairness, temperance and restraint, and courage and strength.
Aristotle too felt that virtue is necessary for a person to be happy and that without virtue, the most that may be attained is contentment. ‘Do well what is worth doing and do what you are good at,’ he advised. For these early philosophers, including the cynics and the stoics, happiness was attained through rigorous training and pleasure was to be controlled or even avoided, or else one can be enslaved by them.
But then came Epicurus, the great hedonist-in-chief, who proclaimed that pleasure is the “beginning and end of the blessed life.” He understood ‘pleasure’ as essentially the satisfaction of desire; and the strongest desire being the removal of pain. He was smart enough to caution against pursuing all pleasure, as some will lead to greater pain or suffering; nor to avoid all pains, as some pain can be good for you and lead to greater satisfaction later.
Before you decide to sign up as a card-carrying hedonist, note that Epicurus counted sexual desires, although natural, as ‘unnecessary’ in that their non-fulfillment is not accompanied by pain. Yes, you can be celibate and be happy! And he was even more critical of desires that are not natural and necessary such as the desire for wealth, honors, power, or acclaim.
So is there a conflict between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of pleasure, i.e. between eudaimonia and hedonia? Can we have one without the other? What are the differences between the two?
Pleasure is externally motivated while happiness is internally generated. The former is fleeting while the latter constant. It is objects ‘out there’ which satisfy our sense organs that bring pleasure; while it is subjective experiences that orient towards authenticity, meaning, excellence, morality, growth, and maturity that bring happiness. If something is a source of happiness, the more you do of it, the happier you become. On the other hand, constant exposure to pleasurable stimuli may leave you craving for and addicted to those sources of pleasure.
Research shows that eudaimonia compared to hedonia is related to having parents who were both responsive and demanding, implying that greater parental investment is required to develop this orientation in children. This reminds me of what my father used to say to us in exasperation when he felt we were having too much fun at the expense of our school work, “Ang gusto niyo lang ay mag-party at mag-ping-pong (all you want to do is party and play ping-pong)!” My siblings and I are all good ping-pong players to this day.
The trick may be to not have to choose one over the other. Perhaps, we can attain an even higher degree of well-being by living as ‘hedonic eudaimonics.’ Hedonia, after all, may be necessary to meet genuine visceral and emotional needs and can serve as an antidote to stress. Pleasure can make us savor the here and now; to be spontaneous and playful in that sensuality. And yet we need to stay on the eudaimonic path to personal fulfillment and accomplishment. Experiencing and creating meaningfulness is what matters most of all. To live in the questions, rather than in the answers until we see the Whole of life.
I love the paradox that St. Augustine offers: If you are living such a happy life that you don’t want it to end then can you be truly happy knowing that you will die? Conversely, if you are willing to die, then are you really happy? The paradox is resolved by knowing that there is an afterlife that we prepare for in this life; that you can have eternal happiness in Heaven.
In the Eastern spiritual traditions, “happiness,” i.e. Divinity, is already in us; “The Kingdom within” as also taught in Christianity. The yoga path teaches us to live good and virtuous lives; to learn to control body, breath and mind so as not to be enslaved by the senses; to concentrate and meditate and wake up to this Bliss, this God-Head, within all of us.
May we all be happy and well in this moment, in this life, and for all eternity!