Since I’m blogging on happiness, I thought it would be a good idea to see the movie Happy-Go-Lucky, which was

Poppy being herself?

Poppy being herself.

released last October but only recently found its way to a theater in Fayetteville.  I guess the local theater owners knew it wouldn’t be a big draw here; there were a total of five people at the screening I attended, and two of them left midway through the film.  Happiness doesn’t seem to provide the draw that war, crime, and other assorted forms of violence do.

If the film is any indication, happiness has very limited narrative possibilities.  The main character of the movie, Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), is a 30-year old London schoolteacher who seems to enjoy immensely nearly everything she does.  She likes drinking and raving with her roommate Zoe and sister Suzy, even though Suzy is as unrelentingly glum as Poppy is chipper.  She likes bouncing on a trampoline and taking flamenco lessons.  She likes teaching, especially enjoying it when she and her elementary school class make and then don bird costumes.  She likes riding her bike through London—or rather liked it, since the bike is stolen at the beginning of the film.  Even the theft doesn’t disturb her good spirits, though; she redeems the loss by deciding that it gives her a good excuse to learn how to drive a car.  Scott, her driving instructor, is her opposite—suspicious in contrast to her trustfulness, pessimistic in contrast to her optimism, rigid in contrast to her flexibility, and intense in contrast to her easygoing manner.  She has an insouciant attitude towards driving, as she does towards everything else, and Scott grows increasingly more unhinged as his efforts to  control his wayward pupil fail. 

That’s pretty much the plot.  Will Poppy be brought low by Scott’s hostility?  Will she be disturbed by a student in her class who is bullying the others?  Will she feel inadequate when her youngest sister faults her for not taking on a mortgage or some other symbol of sobriety and maturity?  Not a chance.  She isn’t immune to what others say or do, but she’s chosen how she will approach life, and she sticks to it.  She’s forever cheerful and imperturbable, which gives little for the plot to address.  The bands of dramatic tension having fallen slack, the movie pretty much drifts from one scene to the next.  The film is like life instead of being like the stories that most movies construct about life.  Frankly, I prefer the storytelling! 

Though Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t tell much of a story, Poppy is an interesting example of a happy person.  As several reviewers of the movie have commented, her happiness isn’t a result of cluelessness, but of a consciously chosen approach to life. I think there are several things she does that contribute to her happiness, but even more contribute to a well-lived life, irregardless of whether that life brings happiness or not.  I see her as striving for eudiamonia more than for happiness.  I’ll describe what I see as the key elements of her approach to life in my next post.    

I previously discussed Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, the happiness which accompanies the good life and is different from pleasure (hedonia).  A psychologist who has paid considerable attention to the distinction between the two is Alan S. Waterman, who is on the faculty of the College of New Jersey.  I ran across a comment by him in the September, 2007 American Psychologist (pages 612-613).  His comment is in response to an article on the hedonic treadmill, which is the theory that we humans have a set point of happiness to which we revert.  Per the theory, our happiness isn’t permanently enhanced if a winning lottery ticket suddenly makes us rich or the girl (or guy) of our dreams consents to marry us.  Similarly, we don’t experience lasting sadness from having our house burn down or being diagnosed with malaria.  After a blip up or down in our degree of personal satisfaction, we will soon revert to our set point and be no more or less happy than we were to start out.


Waterman thinks that the hedonic treadmill doesn’t apply well to eudaimonia.  He claims that there is a separate eudaimonic treadmill, which can become a eudaimonic staircase, whereas the hedonic treadmill always stays a treadmill.  I’ll explain what he means after I discuss his definition of eudaimonia.


Waterman claims that the good life that eudaimonia accompanies is “excellence in the pursuit of fulfillment of personal potentials in ways that further an individual’s purposes in living.”  That’s not the same as Aristotle’s concept, because the element of virtue is lacking.  Would I experience eudaimonia if I managed to fulfill my potential to dominate and humiliate others whenever I had the chance?   If that was my goal in life and I got really good at it, I’ve met Waterman’s criterion, but I sure haven’t satisfied Aristotle’s.


Despite the problem with his definition, Waterman’s argument about the treadmill is interesting.  He relates the achievements of eudiamonia to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. Flow occurs when the challenges of an activity are closely matched to one’s level of ability.  Thus, when I started studying Biblical Greek last fall, I found the first set of translation exercises were somewhat beyond my capacity, but after a little practice my ability matched the exercises and I experienced flow.  According to Waterman, at that point I was also experiencing an enhanced sense of eudaimonia.  The state didn’t last, though, because eventually my skill level exceeded the demands made by that set of exercises, and what once was challenging became boring.  That’s the eudaimonic treadmill; I reverted to my previous level of well-being. 


However, I didn’t have to stay in a eudaimonic fixed state.  I could and did increase the level of challenge by going to a harder set of exercises.  I thus restored a sense of flow and again enhanced my sense of eudaimonia.  The process can be ongoing; the person always seeks new challenges and thereby achieves more and more of his or her potential.  This, says Waterman, is the eudaimonic staircase.



Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?

Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?


Though I’m fascinated by the argument, I have some questions.  First, returning to the difference between Waterman and Aristotle, do all forms of flow qualify?  If I continually enhance my personal potential to be a superior auto thief or street fighter, am I just as likely to experience eudaimonia as if I’m enhancing my potential for generosity or compassion?  Some ways of fulfilling my potential don’t seem advisable to pursue, even if they make me happy.  Second, why can’t someone use the same procedure with hedonia as Waterman does with eudaimonia, that is, seek ever greater pleasures and thus turn the hedonic treadmill into a hedonic staircase?  Waterman seems to think that this procedure works only for eudiamonia, but he doesn’t give any reason why it would work in the one case but not in the other.   The article to which he was responding (and which I previously discussed here) actually argues that the hedonic treadmill isn’t universal and there are ways to increase one’s hedonia.  Even if Waterman is wrong and always raising the bar works just as well with hedonia as with eudaimonia, the prospect of living in a society in which everyone is constantly seeking more pleasure doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as does a society in which everyone is seeking eudaimonia via striving for excellence.  Faced with two staircases to happiness, society may be better off if people head up the eudiamonic one.