There Are Two Kinds of Happy People

In contrast to hedonia, the Stoic approach is known as eudaimonia, which might be defined as a life devoted to our greatest potential in service of our highest ideals. Stoicism is characterized by the principles of naturalism and moralism—changing the things we can to make life better while also accepting the things we can’t change. (The “Serenity Prayer” is very Stoic.) “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish,” Epictetus wrote in The Enchiridion, “but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

Moralism is the principle that moral virtue is to be defined and followed for its own sake. “Tell yourself, first of all, what kind of man you want to be,” Epictetus wrote in his Discourses, “and then go ahead with what you are doing.” In other words, create a code of virtuous conduct for yourself and live by it, with no loopholes for convenience.

Epicureans and Stoics are encouraged to focus their attention on different aspects of life—and death. Epicurus’s philosophy suggested that we should think intently about happiness, while for Stoics, the paradox of happiness is that to attain it, we must forget about it; with luck, happiness will come as we pursue life’s purpose. Meanwhile, Epicurus encourages us to disregard death while we are alive, and Epictetus insists that we confront it and ponder it regularly, much like the maranasati meditation in Buddhism, in which monks contemplate their own deaths and stages of decay.

No research to date asks why some people are naturally more Epicurean and others more Stoic. No doubt there is a genetic component, given the large percentage of personality that sits encoded somewhere in our DNA. But nurture likely also plays a role: In one study, a scholar found that parents who modeled and endorsed eudaimonia had kids who engaged in eudaimonic pursuits. Meanwhile, parents who role-modeled hedonia had kids who grew up to derive pleasure primarily from this model. The implication is pretty clear: If you want children who principally pursue duty and honor, do so yourself. If instead you strive to achieve happiness by minimizing pain, your kids probably will too.

People have argued for centuries about which approach is better for happiness, but they largely talk past one another. In truth, each pursues different aspects of happiness: Epicurus’s style brings pleasure and enjoyment; Epictetus’s method delivers meaning and purpose. As happiness scholars note, a good blend of these things is likeliest to deliver a truly happy life. Too much of one—a life of trivial enjoyment or one of grim determination—will not produce a life well lived, as most of us see it.

The big question is, therefore, how people can manufacture a good blend in their lives between the two approaches. Here are three ideas.

The Atlantic

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