The Ancient Greeks Knew a Thing or Two About Happiness

Peter Baumann, musician and founder of a think tank that explores the experience of being human, on "hedonic" and "eudaemonic" pleasure, and how to harness both.

Peter Baumann: The upwelling of positive feelings that we have when we are “happy” is also an evolutionary adaptation and it really signals that what we experience is beneficial for us. Something that really enhances our lives or protects us or gives us joy — like a newborn or a new relationship or something like that. But if we were constantly happy, we wouldn’t see any threats that potentially are around the corner. So there is basically a positive and a negative wave that goes through our lives. Negative when we perceive things that are potentially threatening to us and positive when there are things that are really life-enhancing. Having said that, I believe that we have an underlying positive attitude towards life. We prefer to live than not to live. And again we have to have that. So the baseline is not zero, where we have some days above zero and some days below zero.

But the baseline is positive in and of itself. In Greek, they have two different words for happiness. One is "hedonic" and that’s the typical pleasure of happiness, you know. The joyful like, "Oh, this is wonderful and great." And then they have a word called "eudaemonia" and that is that positive baseline that simply is a joy of simply living.

There is so much happening in our lives that we pay attention to and quite frankly, you know, the little devices that we carry around don’t help very much because our attention gets totally absorbed into that attraction from these little devices. And we get a little bit of dopamine all the time when we get information; information is valuable instinctively. So we want to know what’s happening and what’s going on. That’s true for gossip and it’s true for why we watch the news. But the problem is that our attention is so much absorbed in that, that we rarely, if ever, pay attention to just being present. And that is really what mindfulness and meditation is trying to balance out a little bit so that when the mind quiets and you actually are at home in your body, that distraction fades away and you actually get in touch with that underlying happiness that the Greeks call eudaemonia.

Just to recognize I’m alive. Just that simple fact is in and of itself positive. And that does not waver. That is always there. And that quality of happiness is there even when sad things happen, you know. So you cannot be always happy because if a loved one dies, you know, obviously you’re not happy; you’re sad. But within that you can have still the joy of living. So those are two different aspects of happiness that I think are very important to distinguish.

 

Peter Baumann, former member of the band Tangerine Dream and founder of the Baumann Foundation, argues that our baseline is a kind of joy of living, but that we're easily distracted from it. He explains the ancient Greek distinction between happiness in the moment and lasting, existential happiness, and the value of both.

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