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.