Do We Really Want Happiness? Lessons from Socrates, Kahneman & Maslow

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work on how the brain functions. Earlier in his career, he started studying happiness but ultimately decided to abandon it and work on something else. He felt that “people don’t want to be happy the way I’ve defined the term – what I experience here and now.”  Instead, he thought that people want to be satisfied by the “story they tell about their lives.”[1]

Despite Kahneman’s view, when you poll people about life goals, the response of many, especially in Western countries, is “to be happy.” Unfortunately, happiness is what artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky calls a “suitcase word.”  It has a different meaning to everyone.  

The word “happiness” traces its roots to the Greek term “eudaimonia,” which translates more closely to “human flourishing.”  For the ancient Greeks, experiencing eudaimonia meant devoting one’s life to the pursuit of wisdom or virtue. To be happy was to be wise. Yet even in ancient Greece, people had their own definitions of happiness.  This frustrated Socrates.  He chastised his fellow Athenians, asking, “are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible?”  He wanted them to embrace his version of happiness, which meant reflecting on “wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul.”[2]

We could conclude that Socrates was right and there is one correct way to live and experience happiness.  I reject this stance.  On the pathless path, we assume that humans are complicated, and we should be wary of simple models, such as Socrates’ definition of happiness, to describe what everyone wants from life. 

Another simple model is Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which is typically represented in pyramid form.  While loosely based on Maslow’s research, the pyramid was invented by a business journalist in 1960, arguing that meeting people’s non-monetary needs was a way to pay them less money.  Maslow’s actual research, however, offers a more interesting model, one that fits with the pathless path.

Maslow first proposed his “hierarchy of needs” in a 1943 paper that explains his perspective on human motivation.  He thought people are motivated by five needs: physiological needs, safety needs, love needs, esteem needs, and the need for self‑actualization.  He hypothesized that “the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another,” but the rest of the paper questions this theory.[3] 

He found exceptions to the hierarchy in his work with patients.  For example, Maslow noticed that sometimes a creative person’s desire to create overrides all other needs.  Moreover, some people are willing to give up meeting their needs in order to fulfill societal expectations.  Others pursue esteem needs instead of love needs because love is missing in their lives. Finally, some people reach a level of satisfaction and have no desire to meet other “higher” needs like self‑actualization. Maslow’s conclusion is complex: people are “partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied…at the same time.”[4]

He spent the next twenty years exploring this tension. He thought the field of psychology was too focused on fixing “broken” people.  He sought to counter this by exploring how people grow and evolve throughout their lives and by developing a new theory of human motivation based on two different perspectives of human behavior.  These were Being-Psychology and Deficit-Psychology, or more simply “B‑Psychology” and “D-Psychology.”   Maslow wanted to emphasize the B‑Values, or Being‑Values such as wholeness, perfection, aliveness, richness, simplicity, beauty, effortlessness, and playfulness.

To Maslow, no one is climbing up through a hierarchy; instead, people are always dealing with a confusing range of needs and desires at the same time.  For example, a lot of research shows that long commutes lead to a permanent decline in happiness.  However, this conclusion ignores a person’s need to feel important, responsible, and loved, not to mention many other needs and desires which may be hard to understand.  While happiness researchers might be confused by a person’s willingness to stick with a long commute, to Maslow it would make sense.[1] 

On the default path, I told myself stories about what I wanted and needed without testing those beliefs.  In contrast, the pathless path enables you to move beyond what you think you should want and get to know what really matters, what really makes you happy.  Unfortunately, we can’t design perfect lives.

On the pathless path we are not progressing up a simple pyramid, but balancing a confusing mix of deficits, desires, and needs.  Indefinitely.

[1] Mandel, Amir. “Why Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman Gave up on Happiness.” Haaretz.Com, 11 Oct. 2018,

[2] Plato. Apology. Independently published, 2020.

[3] Maslow, A. H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, vol. 50, no. 4, 1943, pp. 370–96. Crossref, doi:10.1037/h0054346.

[4]  Maslow, A. H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, vol. 50, no. 4, 1943, pp. 370–96. Crossref, doi:10.1037/h0054346.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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