Charles — before he went from prince to king — at the opening of Parliament in May. He has lived a life of privilege. Does that make it harder for him to find happiness? (Alastair Grant/AP)
5 min

Not long ago, I saw Prince Charles relaxing on a yacht floating in the sun-drenched Mediterranean. He was attended by servants employed to meet his every need, which I imagine ranged from cutting the crusts off his cucumber sandwiches to ironing the wrinkles out of his Sunday Times newspaper.

I thought to myself: Man, I sure could be happy living like that. Then I had another thought: But does it make Prince Charles happy?

When I say I “saw” Prince Charles, I mean I was watching an episode of “The Crown.” My wife and I watch it during dinner, our plates balanced on our laps. Our living situation is very nice, better than 95 percent of the people on this planet. But it’s not as nice as the living situation enjoyed by the man recently promoted to King Charles. If I experienced a taste of Charles’s life, I would notice the difference from my own. The experience would make me happy.

But Charles? He’s lived that life since birth. He’s probably never eaten a crust-encumbered cucumber sandwich. What sort of benchmarks for happiness does he possess? Is his happiness meter always pegged at 10? Is it even possible for him to be happy? He has nowhere to go but down.

I chewed this over with Anthony Ahrens, a professor of psychology at American University who serves on the board of the Journal of Happiness Studies.

“One question for Charles is what's the contrast that he's got?” Ahrens said. What is the distance between his most happy and his least happy?

“My bet is neither you nor I are chased by paparazzi,” Ahrens said. “If [Charles] just came out of an experience that was really unpleasant, the contrast with the yacht will make the yacht seem a really, really happy place.”

But if, metaphorically speaking, Charles simply goes from yacht to yacht to yacht, he risks experiencing the adaptation effect. That, Ahrens said, is when we become so accustomed to a certain standard, it becomes watered down.

“Think about when you eat a meal,” he said. “The first bite of something is typically the best. The next bite is really good, but you've started to adapt already to the food. The contrast to the first bite is when you weren’t eating anything. The contrast to the next bite is the first bite.”

And happiness can be inconsistent, influenced by what precedes or follows it. As Ahrens pointed out, a 60-degree day in March probably makes us happier than a 60-degree day in October. In March, it’s a warm surprise. In October, it means winter is coming.

Ahrens said that what I had described was hedonic happiness: happiness from pleasure. Arguably more important is eudaimonic happiness. That is happiness that’s achieved not through the experience of pleasure, but in the quest for a meaningful life.

Psychology can only take us so far on this quest, Ahrens said. He likens psychology to an auto mechanic.

“If your car is on the fritz, you take it to a mechanic,” he said. “You don’t take your car to a mechanic to figure out where you want to drive your car. You need philosophers to help you think about what kind of life you want to live.”

Happily, I have a philosopher right here: Nancy Sherman, professor of philosophy at Georgetown and the author of “Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience.”

Sherman said that Aristotle was all about eudaemonia.

“It really means flourishing, doing well, or as Aristotle says, faring well,” Sherman said. “It often translates as the good life or living a good life.”

A good life may include pleasure, but that shouldn’t be its focus. Said Sherman: “The Greeks give us the idea that the best parts of ourselves have to do with our reason and exercising it well.”

Sherman said: “Aristotle thinks the best life is an active life and the best way to stay active, or to sustain activity, is with friends. And the most perfect friendship is with those who share a commitment to good character.”

Hearing this only made me feel sad for Charles. He may have wanted to live a different sort of active life. What if as a child he dreamed of being an actuary? Or a marine biologist? And how can Charles be certain his friends are into him and not into his glittering lifestyle and ability to hustle up a yacht?

Sherman has a fondness for the Stoics’ approach to life. Stoics weren’t indifferent to happiness. They acknowledged that the road to it could be beset with challenges and tragedies. The Stoics had some tips for living, but they’re too complex to lay out in my humble column.

I guess what both psychologists and philosophers would say is that happiness doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Into each life — or onto each yacht — some rain must fall.

Said Sherman: “You could be Priam. Life was going well, you were king of the Trojans, and you lose all your sons and no longer are you happy.”

Kings and sons: a fraught topic, indeed.

What about you? What simple, inexpensive thing or experience reliably makes you happy? Send it — with “Happiness” in the subject line — to me at