The definition of happiness and the good life was much debated among early philosophers. Two schools of thought emerged: Aristippus’ solution was hedonism, or the pursuit of sensual pleasure and avoidance of pain. Aristotle, meanwhile, thought the ultimate aim was eudaimonia, or self-actualization.
Skip forward 2,500 years, and psychologists are applying the scientific method to the problem. Does this help our understanding of what constitutes a life well lived?
Hedonic well-being is construed by psychologists as an evaluation of how satisfied we are with our lives, coupled with our level of positive emotions, minus that of negative emotions. Alan Waterman conceived of eudaimonia as the feeling resulting from engaged living in congruence with one’s deepest values. More specifically, Carol Ryff claims eudaimonia is a combination of personal growth, environmental mastery, sense of purpose, autonomy, self-acceptance and positive relations with others.
There is some evidence that the two types of well-being are separate, as the Greeks believed. Keyes, Shmotkin and Ryff found that both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being are separate but related concepts, each correlating differently with demographic and personality variables.
Compton, Smith, Cornish and Qualls analyzed 18 mental health and well-being indicators, and found two correlated but separate higher-order factors: hedonic subjective well-being and personal growth. Similarly, McGregor and Little analyzed a range of mental health indicators and found two factors: happiness and meaning. And Joar Vitterso found evidence that eudaimonic and hedonic well-being are separate entities.
But confusingly, other research has found that eudaimonia and hedonism are not so different after all. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park and Martin Seligman unite hedonic and eudaimonic concepts by claiming that there are three orientations to happiness: the pleasant (or hedonic) life, the good (or meaningful) life, and the engaged (or flow-inducing) life. Peterson and Seligman found that these three orientations to happiness are distinguishable and can be pursued simultaneously, and that each is individually associated with life satisfaction – usually considered a solely hedonic measure of the good life.
It is not entirely clear whether Peterson’s three concepts are intended to be descriptions of different aspects of a unified concept of happiness, or descriptions of different causes of happiness. The psychological literature often fails to make a distinction between what happiness is and what causes happiness – as we all do in our everyday use of the term happiness.
Perhaps the emphasis of eudaimonic theories on personal development, meaning and engagement suggests that eudaimonists are best understood as explaining what causes life to be good. In contrast, hedonic psychologists, in discussing the subjective experiences of affect and life satisfaction, seem to be describing what the good life feels like.
Indeed, Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory claims that hedonic well-being is experienced when we feel autonomous, competent and related to others. Thus, they take eudaimonia to be the cause of hedonic well-being. And Steger, Kashdan and Oishi found that eudaimonic activities such as volunteering and giving money to the needy lead to more hedonic well-being than reputedly hedonic activities such as drinking and shopping. But it seems likely that as Peterson suggests, eudaimonic activities are not the only cause of happiness – we all need to kick back and relax sometimes.
So it seems that with happiness there are no easy answers. More research is certainly needed. There does seem to be some relationship between eudaimonia and hedonism, but the two aren’t identical. But in fact it seems Aristotle knew this all along. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he says, “What is the highest of all goals achievable by actions?… Both the general run of man and people of superior refinement say it is happiness… but with regard to what happiness is, they differ.”
Compton, W.C., Smith, M.L., Cornish, K.A., Qualls, D.L. (1996). Factor structure of mental health measures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 406-413.
Keyes, C.L.M., Shmotkin, D., & Ryff, C.D. (2002). Optimising well-being: The empirical encounter of two traditions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1007-1022.
McGregor, I., & Little, B.R. (1998). Personal projects, happiness and meaning: on doing well and being yourself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 494-512.
Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25-41.
Steger, M., Kashdan, T.B., & Oishi, S. (2007). Being good by doing good: Daily eudaimonic activity and well-being. Journal of Research in Personality.
Vitterso, J. (in press). Life satisfaction is not a balanced estimator of the good life: Evidence from reaction time measures and self-reported emotions. Journal of Happiness Studies.
Waterman, A.S. (1993). Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(4), 678-691.
Rosie you struggle so well with the core issues, I am fascinated to see how you work through them. Happiness, hmn.. flourishing, how to judge? Neo-nate studies in Europe showed a lower baby weight after 9/11. Our affections, our sympathies seem contagious across continents.
You think deeply and write well, and courageously.
Thank you for this piece.
Is it useful to divide happiness into pleasure, engagement, eudaimonia etc?
I wrestle with the idea that happiness develops into its own neat little compartments, because at any given moment it seems more empirically valid to say that in fact there are blends of pleasure, meaning, engagement, eudaimonia, ice cream, Doritos and Star Trek Voyageur.
We live in a fuzzy world, most of the time. Do we measure someone who is satisfied with their hedonic pursuits, doesn’t feel like a deep, meaningful life is necessary and is NOT complaining about dissatisfaction as less happy than the existentially satisfied but touchy and sour?
Put mathematically…snooze alert…are we a 2 in pleasure, a 5 in engagement, a 3 in eudaimonia, a 9 in purpose or meaning? Do these numbers really make any sense, even on a 1 to 10 scale?
What does it mean to be a 9 of 10 in average happiness? Can we spot Mr. and Mrs. Happy on the street corner? What are the outward behavioral indicators of Happiness that a camera would see, that a recording device would capture?
Would you believe my signature strength is NOT in curiosity? Or gratitude. Thank you very much.
Hey, this was one of the first questions I wondered about when I started learning about positive psychology, “How can we determine what is really important to each person in evaluating his or her life?”
I first approached this question in wondering about how to create just the right questionnaire so that in a few questions, we could ask people about what really mattered to them. So that we could learn what are the benchmarks that people measure life by. For example, “Oh, yes, work is going fine? Yes, check. My friends I’ve seen them recently? Yes, check. Etc.”
But after learning a little more about positive psychology, and research methods in general, I am no longer a fan of open-ended questionnaires that need to be “coded” – for example, if I ask an open-ended question, and one person answers “the home is important,” does that mean the physical house or the sense of family? So it’s hard to code those kind of answers for research purposes.
So… I recommend two different ways for figuring out what’s important to you: the Wheel of Life and the QOLTC method.
1) Margaret Greenberg wrote up a great description of the Wheel of Life. If you change the instructions a little bit (which, BTW, is always happening with this useful coaching tool, the Wheel of Life – people change the section names, to apply them particularly to Leadership or Management for example and people change the question asked)… so if you change the question in Step 1 to “How much on a scale of 1-10 (10 being best), do you value this part of your life?” then you’ll learn about what things make that person happy.
2) Using Michael Frisch’s quality-of-life therapy methods, you can see here that there are 16 areas of life which you can use as a jumping off point to see how valuable they are to you. And it might be that all 16 are equally valuable. (PPND author Caroline Miller co-teaches a class with Michael Frisch – details here at QOLTC).
So, Jeff, you could try these two methods to find the areas in life that are really important to you personally, and that are more specific that the pleasure, engagement, meaning spectrums.
Very thoughtful and helpful response. Everything Frisch touches turns to gold. I use the CASIO method, mentioned to me by Kathryn B. quite a bit. I would say that, for me, this is the most useful PP tool thus far.
Open ended questionnaires have a place, for sure. Yet they are questionnaires and they have limitations. Sometimes just sitting down and talking to somebody face-to-face can prove a wealth of hidden information far better than a quiz.
I’m excited to hear more of Frisch’s work and I hope there are articles guest-authored by him.
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence ~
Happiness is about the satisfaction of what fulfils all the criteria of our existence/essence. Many things such as job satisifaction, life satisfaction can provide us wih this happiness however these are limited because they are all temporal. True happiness is being wholly satisified and which is not limited by temporal constraints. True happiness is found and obtained from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I came across this article whilst researching for my dissertation and it’s been so useful! With regards to the relationship between hedonic pleasure and eudaimonia, and which is “true” happiness, i struggle to see why there’s such debate. Aristotle himself seems to accept that they are both equally valid means of happiness:
“For some identify happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with a kind of philosophic wisdom, others with these, or one of these, accompanied by pleasure or not without pleasure; while others include also external prosperity. Now … it is not probable that these should be entirely mistaken, but rather that they should be right in at least some one respect or even in most respects.” Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 8
the way i see it, hedonic pleasure is necessary but not sufficient for true happiness. The hedonic pleasure which results from engaging activities which challenge our strengths (flow) acts as a reinforcer to further develop those strengths in the future. These strengths are what allow people to develop their sense of self and meaning within a community.