What is happiness?

What you should know about hedonia and eudaimonia

It turns out that defining happiness is quite the tricky task. The Oxford English Dictionary defines being happy as ‘Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment’ – basically as experiencing or displaying positive affect.

Ok, not quite rocket science. However, current scientific insights into happiness show a lot more complexity and nuance of this topic. One distinction that is often made when talking about happiness concerns its quality: hedonia versus eudaimonia.

Hedonic happiness

The transient presence of positive emotions and absence of negative affect (or avoidance of pain) is called ‘hedonic’ happiness. You can see how this is quite easy to achieve. For example, if you watch a funny movie, you instantly feel positive affect. I should note that to count as hedonic happiness, the positive affect must not be induced by drugs.

Hedonia regards happiness as an end-state or destination. Often, when we talk about happiness, what we mean is hedonic happiness. However, hedonia only forms a tiny part in overall happiness. The bigger part is the type of happiness that positive psychology has become a lot more interested in over the last couple of decades – and that is eudaimonic happiness.

Eudaimonic happiness

An alternative or complementing happiness theory to hedonia postulates that people are happy when they achieve what they need, live in line with their values and find meaning in life. This phenomenon is also referred to as eudaimonic happiness.

The concept of eudemonia is not new. In fact, Aristotle was the first to coin this term. According to Aristotle, realising one’s potential is the pinnacle of happiness. Later on, psychological ‘drive’ theories have agreed with this idea. For example, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchy of human needs.

While generally regarded as a theory of what motivates human behaviour, Maslow claimed that reaching the highest level of his hierarchical model, ‘self-actualisation’, would lead to real happiness – i.e. beyond the experience of hedonic happiness.

Self-determination theory postulates that the attainments of autonomy, competence and relatedness lead to happiness. But we will look more into these motivational theories later on.

Eudaimonic happiness is also described as ‘living in line with your deepest core values’

It doesn’t matter what you do, but rather how you do it – i.e. in a way that let’s you fully express your core values. You see why it is so important to establish an understating into our values. In contrast to hedonia, eudemonia thus regards happiness as a journey rather than an end-point. It thus also explains the phenomenon of ‘delayed gratification’: the momentary abstinence of pleasure in order to experience a deeper level of happiness later on.

You can see how hedonia and eudaimonia are highly subjective. They are determined individually, rather than the same for people in general. For example, one person will find pleasure in socialising with a big group of friends over dinner, while someone else would find that exhausting and find pleasure in long, solitudinous walks in nature.

Similarly, while one person may find eudaimonic happiness through a fulfilling career, someone else may achieve it through having children and caring for the family, or through volunteering their craft in a community somewhere in the world.

So, what’s more important for true happiness – hedonic or eudaimonic happiness? The short answer is: both. Eudaimonia is the highest human aim and hedonic happiness is what makes the journey to eudaimonia so sweet.

Maike x