Happiness According to Sigmund Freud

Freud believed that, as human beings, our happiness is oriented solely to satisfying our needs. It leads us to experience only a momentary and fleeting sense of well-being. This explains our continued dissatisfaction.
Happiness According to Sigmund Freud

Last update: 30 March, 2022

Happiness, according to Sigmund Freud, defines behavior that’s neither foreign nor unknown to us. In fact, the father of psychoanalysis defined the human being as a figure oriented to the continuous search for pleasure. Therefore, we constantly long for immediate gratification to escape the feeling of repression that our society generates.

Freud’s approach differed from more recent approaches that try to explain to us how to ‘be happy’. For example, the positive psychology of Martin Seligman or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. While these two psychologists spoke about factors such as optimism, resilience, creativity, and wisdom, Freud offered a different perspective.

However, we must understand that Freud was a child of his time, an era when psychology was a new discipline. Nevertheless, this didn’t detract from the value of his contributions. In fact, in the pages of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud traced a series of realities that, even years, later, are easy to identify.

“What we call happiness, in the strictest sense, comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”

-Sigmund Freud-

image to symbolize happiness according to Sigmund Freud
According to Freud, we experience a constant longing for immediate gratification.

Happiness according to Freud

Freud pointed out that happiness comes from the satisfaction of our ignored or unattended needs. He defined this behavior as the pleasure principle. It serves as a mirror for many of the behaviors we observe today. Indeed, seeking satisfaction and dopamine reinforcement is a constant in a large part of our population.

The pleasure principle claims we only experience extremely brief feelings of satisfaction. Along similar lines, society today doesn’t know how (or can’t) delay or sacrifice its need for immediate gratification in order to obtain more lasting rewards in the long term. What we want we must achieve in the here and now, otherwise, we feel uncomfortable.

As Freud indicated, due to this constant ‘appetite’ to obtain reinforcements for our instincts, it’s difficult for us to achieve real and lasting well-being. It should be noted that the famous Austrian psychiatrist always harbored a really pessimistic view of the concept of happiness.

Civilization and its Discontents: An important book

To understand what happiness meant for Freud, it’s essential to read Civilization and its Discontents (1930) together with his book, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. These are two extremely decisive texts in the field of social psychology and even of the 20th century in general. In these works, Freud explains that, in reality, human beings can’t be happy within civilization (although they can’t be without it either).

Civilization and society give us security but also repress us. That repression is what oppresses, silences, and regulates our most basic instincts. In this way, only when we can release them from time to time, do we achieve happiness. For Sigmund Freud, sex was an obvious form of happiness

As humans, we only seek two things. The first is to avoid suffering and the second is to seek, at all costs, some way to obtain pleasure. This may seem rudimentary and elementary but it defines a large part of people’s behavior. For example, we can achieve pleasure with things as simple as satisfying hunger, meeting our needs for affiliation, or obtaining certain material resources.

Happiness, according to Sigmund Freud, is something we’re always seeking

Sigmund Freud claimed that happiness is something we’re always trying to achieve and never manage to prolong. It’s like looking for fireflies at night. They captivate us with their light, they cast a spell on us, but when we pick them up, their light immediately goes out. Along similar lines, the father of psychoanalysis claimed that it isn’t easy for human beings to achieve that state of permanent and enriching well-being.

He explained in Civilization and its Discontents, that there are three factors that mediate this difficulty in achieving happiness. The first is for our body and our psyche. That’s because we’re beings whose bodies get sick and age, and we’re vulnerable to adversity.

The second factor is civilization and the outside world. A difficult, contradictory, and often destructive scenario. The third variable is human relationships.

woman representing happiness according to Sigmund Freud
Suffering is a constant in the life of the human being, according to Sigmund Freud.

Criticism of Freud’s vision: satisfaction and happiness aren’t the same

Without a doubt, Freud’s idea of happiness exemplifies much of our present behavior. We seek happiness by trying to satisfy our needs, and this makes us fall into behaviors that, far from promoting our well-being, bring suffering.

We buy things we don’t need thinking that it’ll make us feel better. However, this doesn’t happen. We’re addicted to social media, we look for likes and recognition at every moment, believing that this will lead to happiness. It doesn’t. In fact, we’re fulfilling what Freud defined as the pleasure principle, the one that leads us to irremediable suffering.

What’s the solution? It’s worth remembering here what the cognitive psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, claims. According to him, we should differentiate between satisfying our needs and happiness as they’re not the same thing.

Our needs will always be there, asking for our attention. Satisfying them will only give us a sense of immediate reward. Soon, hunger, desire, and need will return.

Authentic happiness requires shaping another type of satisfaction, the one in which we invest in long-term goals and not immediate rewards. Therefore, knowing how to postpone gratifications, and strive for higher purposes, can lead to a more lasting sense of well-being.

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  • Howell, Ryan & Chenot, David & Hill, Graham & Howell, Colleen. (2011). Momentary Happiness: The Role of Psychological Need Satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies. 12. 1-15. 10.1007/s10902-009-9166-1.
  • Freud, Sigmund (2017) El malestar en la cultura, trad. de A. Brotons Muñoz, Madrid, Akal
  • Freud, Sigmund. Obras completas de Sigmund Freud, volumen XXI – El porvenir de una ilusión, El malestar en la cultura, y otras obras (1927-1931). 2.  Buenos Aires y Madrid: Amorrortu.