If a search for “secret to happiness,” which leads to over 345 million Google results is any indicator, clearly, the question of how to feel pleasure and contentment is an elusive one. It would be great if there was one simple, universal answer, wouldn’t it? But part of the reason the pursuit is so complex is that “happiness” looks totally different for different people.
That’s why a major key is finding out what it means to you. According to psychologist and Detox Your Thoughts ($19) author Andrea Bonior, PhD, there are two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. Both are important, but will vary in how they appear from person to person. “Hedonic happiness is about feeling good and pleasure,” she says, explaining that one example of this is savoring a delicious meal. “Eudaimonic happiness is connected to a deeper sense of fulfillment. It’s a sense of feeling connected to what matters to you, even when things aren’t always happy or joyful.”
Dr. Bonior says that hedonic happiness is important for feeling joy in the moment, but eudaimonic happiness is what’s truly important for long-lasting contentedness. She explains that it’s impossible to be happy all the time—life is bound to throw you some curveballs and sometimes bad stuff happens—but eudaimonic happiness is about a deep-rooted sense of life satisfaction that can remain steady even during difficult periods.
Chances are, you can probably think of what gives you the type of pleasure related to hedonic happiness. Maybe it’s losing yourself in a 45-minute boxing class or going out to dinner with your partner. But pinpointing eudaimonic happiness is a bit tricker. To help you figure out what it means for yourself, Dr. Bonior recommends asking yourself five key questions about happiness, which she explains in detail below.
5 questions about happiness to ask yourself
1. What would you do with a totally free day?
“Part of eudaimonic happiness involves figuring out what our values are and how we can put our values into play each day,” Dr. Bonior says. If you don’t know what your values are, she says asking yourself the question of what you would do on a totally free day can help. And she’s not talking about a day where you’re completely burned out and all you want to do is eat dumplings and watch Netflix. She’s talking about a day where you wake up completely rested with no chores to do. How would you spend it?
For one person, a free day may look like going to an outdoor cafe and reading a good book with their phone completely turned off. Another may want to do something adventurous, like camp under the stars. Someone else may choose to spend their free day all alone, while others would prefer it to be more social. When asking yourself this “free day” question, Dr. Bonior says to pay attention to the aspects of it that mean something to you. Then, think about ways you can integrate these values into your everyday life. While most people don’t get to live out their dream free day every day, you can still find ways to take parts of it—like doing something adventurous, social, or alone—into your life more regularly.
2. How would you want your life to be summed up someday?
Another way Dr. Bonior suggests approaching this prompt is to ask yourself: What would you want to be included in your obituary? “This allows you to think big picture,” she says. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of life that often you forget to pause and think about what’s really important. Do you hope to be remembered as a caring parent? Considerate friend? Someone who helps vulnerable communities?
If how you’re currently spending your time doesn’t sync up with what you want your legacy to be, this is a chance to think about changes you could be making in your life. And they don’t have to be massive changes either. Maybe this question leads you to realize you aren’t pouring into your friendships as much as you’d like, so you get a phone date on the books with someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Or, it could inspire you to volunteer once a month with an organization that aligns with your values. Small steps go a long way.
3. What are you most willing to put effort into?
One reality of life is that you have to spend time devoted to activities you don’t really want to do. But Dr. Bonior encourages people to think about what they’re willing to make time for—even when they’re busy. “This question helps us pinpoint what activities put us in a state of ‘flow,’ which is when we get lost in whatever we’re doing and don’t notice time going by,” she says. “Your energy is finite—and when you find yourself choosing to spend it on certain things, that gives you a clue as to your priorities,” Dr. Bonior writes in her book.
5. What activities put you in “flow”?
Spending time in a state of flow shouldn’t just be reserved for the hours you’re off the clock; considering all the time you spend working, it’s important that at least some part of your job is spent in flow, too. “When you’re spending time in ‘flow,’ you’re going to be more engaged in your life,” Dr. Bonior says.
She says to ask yourself what parts of your job you lose yourself in. If asking yourself this question makes you realize you are rarely—or never—in flow at work, it could lead to some bigger questions to ask yourself, like if it’s time to explore a new job or career path.
5. Whose faces do you see when you hear the word “love”?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s this: Connection is important. Dr. Bonior says it’s pivotal to think about the people in your life that bring you joy and to actively nourish those relationships. “Loneliness has massive effects on both our mental and physical health. It actively decreases lifespan,” Dr. Bonior says. “Relationships are that important.”
Dr. Bonior also says that the amount of quality time to spend with other people varies from person to person, so that’s another part of this question to ask yourself: How much is essential to you? “I liken social connection to plants. Some plants need a lot of sunlight to thrive, but other plants only need a little,” she says. “You have to find what works for you.”
There isn’t one universal picture of what long-lasting happiness looks like. What these five questions help do is pinpoint what it looks like for you. Dr. Bonior says they can be helpful to revisit anytime you feel discontent. Very likely, it’s related to one of the questions here. Hey, maybe happiness isn’t that elusive after all.
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