It is often said that the goal of life is to be happy. Whether that is true or not however, depends on how you define happiness. Several centuries ago Aristotle noted that there are two distinct types of happiness, which are still conflated to this day with disastrous results. The first type of happiness is a transient emotional experience of happiness. The second type of happiness is a more enduring state associated with human flourishing. Aristotle believed that these two forms of happiness were different enough to warrant separate names so he termed the latter, Eudaimonia. I refer to it as well-being.
Momentary emotional happiness is certainly a desirable feeling. However, if your goal in life is to consistently achieve it without regard to your long term well-being you will guarantee yourself neither. Only by making long term well-being your goal can you sustain both. The road to happiness and well-being is a one way street. The way we achieve both types of happiness is to focus on well-being through the satisfaction of needs. However, it is not enough to know what our needs are [see list] we must also know if the strategies we are using to satisfy them are effective. I call those strategies, values. We obtain personal well-being and pave the way for a society that fosters human well-being, by having values that effectively satisfy our objective human needs.
So what are values? Quite simply, values are the things that we care about. I use the term values to broadly describe any strategy that we believe helps us meet our needs. They range from the basics of acquiring food and shelter to the abstracts of honesty and empathy. We value a myriad of things in the pursuit of needs fulfillment and as we shall see this diversity leads to confusion. However, by keeping two important facts about values in mind the picture becomes clearer. First, the values that we hold may not satisfy our needs. We sometimes make mistakes and use ineffective values. Second, even if the value does not assuage a need it still remains seductive to us because it gives us immediate gratification when we obtain it. When we achieve something we want it produces positive emotions regardless of its long term effects to our well-being. This immediate emotional feedback is at the heart of the confusion on happiness. It serves to focus our attention on the emotional rewards of achieving a value without regard to whether it is truly satisfying a need.
For example, suppose I value being liked as a way to meet my needs for esteem. I don’t know I’m trying to fill esteem needs; all I know is that it feels good when people like me. I may go so far as to sacrifice other needs in order to be liked, for instance getting drunk at a bar in an attempt to be the life of the party. I am driven by the positive emotion associated with the value of being liked, to the exclusion of the need for esteem that being liked is attempting to fill. In fact, I’m eroding my esteem. A downward spiral is created and I’m left bailing out the boat with a bucket full of holes. However if I understand that values are a means to an end, I can evaluate if the value is helping to reach that end and will not be diverted by the emotion.
The emotions associated with values are acute, while the emotions associated with needs fulfillment are less intense but more enduring. This leads to the common misperception that by achieving emotional happiness in the moment we are increasing long term well-being. This is not always the case. And this fact is evidenced in the extreme by a host of addictive behaviors in which people engage. The insidiousness of this belief entraps people in ineffective strategies that initially create positive emotion but do not increase, and in fact could inhibit, well-being. Values must satisfy needs in order to increase well-being.
It is through the process of examining the effectiveness of our current values that we discover the impacts of our family history and cultural milieu. Depression, anger, guilt, and the litany of emotional pinpricks that beleaguer our daily lives can be greatly reduced and muted by aligning our values and needs. We gain a much needed perspective on life events and discover the ability to act instead of react. Far too many people mindlessly follow a script that was imposed upon them. They react as if on cue to the rote lines of others in a joyless parody of life. By understanding and changing your scripts you unlock the personal freedom to choose values that increase joy and engender thriving.
On the societal level, the myriad of values employed by individuals serve to create an illusion that we are vastly different from one another. This obscures the commonalities of our nature and inhibits our compassion. Humans all need the same things. Once we understand this similarity we can establish common values to help us reach those ends. To witness the vast array of strategies people employ in attempting to satisfy their needs belies the fact that the needs are universal. The fact that some can enjoy inflicting cruelty on others underscores how differing values can conceal our shared needs and how the emotional connection with values can be misleading. People who enjoy inflicting pain are likely trying to meet their needs for worth by having power over others while transferring the pain of their own past mistreatments to the victim. They value this power and transfer of pain and therefore feel positive emotions when they achieve it. However alien this strategy may seem to us, the need for self-worth they are tragically trying to meet is universal to us all. A more effective strategy for meeting our self- worth needs is to exercise integrity in our daily lives. The apparent contradiction between humans as similar yet different was succinctly addressed by Confucius a couple of thousand years ago:
“By nature men are nearly alike. By practice they get far apart.”
To understand that our actions are strategies for meeting needs allows for greater understanding of the human condition. And with the understanding that we are all trying to meet the same needs one can develop empathy for the similarity of our struggles. It is through empathetic connection that we can move beyond judgment and have compassion for actions we have historically seen as bad or evil in ourselves and others. Redefining “bad” actions as expressions of unmet needs allows us to help ourselves and others find more effective ways to meet needs. It is when we as individuals focus on meeting objective human needs by employing rationally self-interested values that we will have the capacity to create a society which fosters, instead of frustrates, human thriving.
Understanding needs is critical to our happiness and well-being, however understanding values brings the equation full circle. Once we understand what need we are trying to meet and what value we have chosen to fulfill that need we can then ascertain whether we have the best strategy in place to optimize our personal freedom, while fostering a society that thrives.