The following paragraphs appeared in the New Yorker on 7 July 2016. I just discovered them today. They conclude a piece about how scientists are trying to find the things that make happy people healthier, and it appears to have less to do with hedonic pleasure and more to do with human connection and this, having goals:
A further tantalizing clue might come from a distant corner of the academy. Since the early nineteen-seventies, the psychologist Brian R. Little has been interested in what he calls personal projects. He and his colleagues at Cambridge University, he told me, have “looked at literally tens of thousands of personal projects in thousands of participants.” Most people, Little’s work suggests, have around fifteen projects going at any time, ranging from the banal, like trying to get your wife to remember to switch off your computer once she’s used it (that’s one of mine), to the lofty, like trying to bring peace to the Middle East. Little refers to this second category as the “core” projects. One of his consistent findings is that, in order to bring us happiness, a project must have two qualities: it must be meaningful in some way, and we must have efficacy over it. (That is, there’s little use trying to be the fastest human in the world if you’re an overweight, agoraphobic retiree.) When I described Cole and Fredrickson’s research, Little noted that it was remarkably congruent with his ideas. As with eudaemonia, though, the precise definition of a core project is malleable. “Core projects can increase the possibilities for social connection, but not necessarily,” Little said. It all depends on an individual’s needs. “A Trappist monk’s core projects don’t require the same kind of connection as an everyday bloke from Birmingham.”
Indeed, this malleability is perhaps the most encouraging quality of both Little’s core project and Aristotle’s eudaemonia, because it makes finding happiness a real possibility. Even the most temperamentally introverted or miserable among us has the capacity to find a meaningful project that suits who we are. Locating it won’t just bring pleasure; it might also bring a few more years of life in which to get the project done.