In his book, Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar came up with what he called the happiness model. The model consists of four archetypes that illustrate how we think about happiness:
- The first archetype is Hedonism. This is when we act in accordance with the idea of ‘seek pleasure and avoid pain.’ This is when you opt for the pizza instead of the grilled chicken, or you don’t study for your upcoming exam and play video games instead. This is a situation when we seek pleasure in the present moment, but we end up sacrificing the future to some extent. On a more extreme level, this is when you embrace the ‘you only live once’ or the ‘seize the day’ mentality and focus solely in the present even when it can negatively impact the future.
- The second archetype is the Rat Race. This is the opposite of hedonism as it focuses on future gain and sacrificing the present moment. This is when you opt for the grilled chicken and vegetables instead of the pizza and focus on studying for your upcoming exam instead of hanging out with your friends. On an extreme level, this is when you live under the idea that happiness is a destination. It’s when you say “When I get that promotion, or get into my college of choice, I will be happy.” However, of course, even if you get that promotion or into college, your goal changes and you want the next thing on your list.
- The third archetype is Nihilism. This is the worst outcome as you act in such a way where there is present detriment AND future detriment. This is when you have the pizza, but you don’t enjoy it or when you are playing video games and finding it very unfulfilling. This state manifests usually when you are feeling hopeless, unexcited, and/or apathetic.
- The fourth archetype is Happiness. This is when you opt for the grilled chicken and vegetables, but you turn the chicken into a parmesan that you love. This is when you study all day so that you can hang out with your friends at night. There is present gain, but also, there is future gain.
Below is an illustration that describes these archetypes. As you can see, there are four quadrants and each archetype’s placement is based on how it affects the present and future:
You might think that we should strive to live in the happiness quadrant and avoid the trap of other quadrants, but that is only partly true. The reality is that whether we like it or not, we will spend time in each quadrant. It is absolutely unavoidable, so we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to achieve something that is unrealistic.
The key is balance, moderation and timing.
Every now and then, you’re going to opt for pleasure now without considering the future. That’s okay. Nothing wrong with having the pizza even though you might feel a bit stuffed after or feel bloated. But should you have it five days in a row? Of course not. Sometimes you’re going to skip class to play games, and that’s fine too. The key is moderation. Similarly, there are going to be times where you need to sacrifice present happiness for future gain. You will need to not go out with your friends after work to pick up your daughter from school. You will need to stay late at work to finish an assignment. But is it an everyday occurrence? Do you keep telling yourself that you’ll be happy as soon as you get that next big break? On occasion though, perfectly okay to sacrifice now for later. Just don’t make it a habit.
Being in the happiness quadrant, of course, is the ideal. You want to maximize the time here. What are the activities that are good now and the future? Find those things. Make them a part of your daily life. For example, if you find a job you love that compensates you fairly, that’s something for the present and future. That’s the ideal. If you like a sport, and you know that it’s good for your health, do that instead of playing video games.
Nihilism, you might think this quadrant is something to avoid at all costs. Well, you can’t avoid it. You’re going to have down moments. The best thing you can do is acknowledge that it is perfectly okay to have those moments. Accept that it is okay to be in that quadrant from time to time. If you do that, you adopt a healthier mindset which makes it easier to get out of that quadrant.
Simply put, (a) maximize your time in the happiness quadrant, (b) focus on moderation and balance with the other quadrants.