Hedonic and Eudaimonic Happiness

By Shirley S. Wang

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.

In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.

The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.

“Sometimes things that really matter most are not conducive to short-term happiness,” says Carol Ryff, a professor and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“Eudaimonia” is a Greek word associated with Aristotle and often mistranslated as “happiness”—which has contributed to misunderstandings about what happiness is. Some experts say Aristotle meant “well-being” when he wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia by fulfilling their potential. Today, the goal of understanding happiness and well-being, beyond philosophical interest, is part of a broad inquiry into aging and why some people avoid early death and disease. Psychologists investigating eudaimonic versus hedonic types of happiness over the past five to 10 years have looked at each type’s unique effects on physical and psychological health.

For instance, symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations.

Since 1995, Dr. Ryff and her Wisconsin team have been studying some 7,000 individuals and examining factors that influence health and well-being from middle age through old age in a study called MIDUS, or the Mid-Life in the U.S. National Study of Americans, funded by the National Institute on Aging. Eudaimonic well-being “reduces the bite” of risk factors normally associated with disease like low education level, using biological measures, according to their recently published findings on a subset of study participants.

Participants with low education level and greater eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker of disease associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease, than those with lower eudaimonic well-being, even after taking hedonic well-being into account. The work was published in the journal Health Psychology.

David Bennett, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and his colleagues showed that eudaimonic well-being conferred benefits related to Alzheimer’s. Over a seven-year period, those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared with those reporting greater purpose in life, according to an analysis published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. The study involved 950 individuals with a mean age of about 80 at the start of the study.

In a separate analysis of the same group of subjects, researchers have found those with greater purpose in life were less likely to be impaired in carrying out living and mobility functions, like housekeeping, managing money and walking up or down stairs. And over a five-year period they were significantly less likely to die—by some 57%— than those with low purpose in life.

The link persisted even after researchers took into account variables that could be related to well-being and happiness, such as depressive symptoms, neuroticism, medical conditions and income.

“I think people would like to be happy,” says Dr. Bennett. “But, you know, life has challenges. A lot of it is how you confront those challenges.”

There is some evidence that people high in eudaimonic well-being process emotional information differently than those who are low in it. Brain-imaging studies indicate people with high eudaimonic well-being tend to use the pre-frontal cortex more than people with lower eudaimonic well-being, says Cariem van Reekum, researcher at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics at the University of Reading in the U.K. The pre-frontal cortex is important to higher-order thinking, including goal-setting, language and memory.

It could be that people with high eudaimonic well-being are good at reappraising situations and using the brain more actively to see the positives, Dr. van Reekum says. They may think, “This event is difficult but I can do it,” she says. Rather than running away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.

The two types of well-being aren’t necessarily at odds, and there is overlap. Striving to live a meaningful life or to do good work should bring about feelings of happiness, of course. But people who primarily seek extrinsic rewards, such as money or status, often aren’t as happy, says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.

Simply engaging in activities that are likely to promote eudaimonic well-being, such as helping others, doesn’t seem to yield a psychological benefit if people feel pressured to do them, according to a study Dr. Ryan and a colleague published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “When people say, ‘In the long-run, this will get me some reward,’ that person doesn’t get as much benefit,” he says.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to feel happy, psychologists say. Happy people tend to be more sociable and energetic, which may lead them to engage in meaningful activities. And for someone who is chronically angry or depressed, the goal should be to help this person feel happier, says Ed Diener, a retired professor at the University of Illinois who advises pollster Gallup, Inc., on well-being and positive psychology.

Surveys have shown the typical person usually feels more positive than neutral, yet it isn’t clear he or she needs to be any happier, Dr. Diener says. But there is such a thing as too much focus on happiness. Ruminating too much about oneself can become a vicious cycle. Fixating on being happy “in itself can become a psychological burden,” Dr. Ryff says.

Being happy doesn’t mean feeling elated all the time. Deep stress is bad, but the “I don’t have enough time” stress that many people feel while balancing work, family and other demands may not be so bad, Dr. Diener says. To improve feelings of happiness and eudaimonia, focus on relationships and work that you love, Dr. Diener says, adding, “Quit sitting around worrying about yourself and get focused on your goals.”


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5 Responses to Hedonic and Eudaimonic Happiness

  1. Vikram Ramsoondur

    Thanks for posting this. It’s a veritably thought-provoking article, and almost sounds too commonsensical to be as recent a find as it is.

    • Very true. There is a lot of research being done with happiness and what not. Most of the findings are commonsensical from what I have seen, or at least they are just affirming conclusions of many wise people throughout history. Nonetheless, it is interesting to approach these things from this angle and certainly adds credence those commonsensical insights that are often dismissed in our nonsensical times.

  2. I think this article makes a provocative point that’s important to consider, especially for spiritual practitioners and those interested in the nature of consciousness.

    Philosopher Jacob Needleman addressed this on Krista Tippett’s radio program, “Speaking of Faith,” now called “Being.” When asked about the unalienable right Americans claim to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the distinction he made was between pleasure and well being, and his point was very much like that made here. Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

    Ms. Tippett: The words in the Declaration of Independence, giving — you know, this right, unalienable right that Americans have claimed since then to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you know, in some ways that’s such an extraordinary phrase. And also I wonder if it’s a phrase that stands in contrast to spiritual values and spiritual impulses. Has it gotten us into trouble?

    Mr. Needleman: Yeah, that may have gotten us into trouble because we haven’t had a lesser view of happiness. What is happiness to us? People say, ‘Oh, well, I don’t know. I just — I don’t know, it makes me feel good.’ Well, feeling good, having nice things, it ain’t happiness.

    Ms. Tippett: What do you think Thomas Jefferson understood in that phrase?

    Mr. Needleman: He meant there’s no happiness without virtue. You can’t have happiness until there’s virtue. And so for Jefferson, it didn’t mean having whatever — just whatever you want. It meant well-being in the traditions that they studied. They were very highly educated in classical thought. Happiness — a better translation of the word is “well-being,” and well-being doesn’t mean continual or lots of pleasure. It doesn’t mean egoistic satisfaction. It means being what you are supposed to be as a human being. So happiness implies a relationship to a truer self within yourself, and I think Jefferson meant that. And I think if you look in the nature of the great spiritual traditions, how they look at and understand human nature, it’s part of the essence of a human being to love, to feel care for others. And we have a very impoverished set of ideas about the human self being just a complicated animal with a complicated brain who evolved out of the slime. That is not a vision that is very profound of what a human being is, nor is it very logical.

    • It is also about how the meaning of a word can change over several hundred years, with the corresponding change in general consciousness. It is something to remember whenever we are dealing with the shastras, which can be very, very ancient.

  3. Of course the happiness that is being considered here with statistics, etc., is material happiness. Spiritual bliss, ananda, is beyond the perview of this discussion.

    Still, happiness has its place in our realm of consideration. The thing is, the Vedic literature has already dealt with this issue and there is really no need for all this research. Big statement? O.K., consider a discussion of the three modes of material nature, most specifically the mode of goodness.

    I have for many years intended to do a study of vaishnava literature on sattva guna, the mode of goodness, but have only barely begun. Perhaps due to influence of the modes. But still we can come up with a few of the basic ideas.

    For example, activites in the mode of goodness are are described in Bhagavad-gita as poison in the beginning and nectar in the end. How simple and how astonishing. So let us look at activity in the mode of goodness.

    Today we have access to more than one vaishnava translation of the Gita, but so far I see a very high level of agreement amonsgt them on this issue. “Tranquillity (or peacefulness), self-control, austerity, purity, forgiveness (or tolerance), honesty, knowledge, wisdom, and faith in God (or religiousness), are the natural qualities by which the brahmanas work.” BG 18.42

    A comprehensive study with quotes would be simply too voluminous. However we know certain things. In the first place the mode of goodness can be cultivated. We are not condemned to one set of coordinates or tri-ordinates. There may be some very strong personality predispositions in place, but anyone can rise early, take a bath, do minor austerites, be clean, honest, practice forgiveness, read books like the Gita in order to be situated in knowledge, and even take the next step, i.e, aiming for realization or wisdom.

    But one thing we know clearly and that is that the mode of goodness produces a sense of happiness. It is not happiness that is based upon sense gratifications but causeless happiness.

    My own experience, for what it is worth, is that the mode of goodness enables me to understand that happiness, vibrating internally with a sense of well-being can become a choice. I can feel another mode moving in, like the whisp of a cloud moving among the hills. And I can change tracks.

    For example, I don’t use this phrase, but I find it comical – people sometimes say, “Oh bummer!” I understand feelings of frustration, to be sure, but I also understand that I can shift gears into knowledge which promotes tolerance and a sense of well-being. I can think, “Krishna is totally in charge of everything. I can accept this as Krishna’s will. He says to just do my duty in this circumstance and let Him be in charge of the result. Whatever Krishna implements is good. How can I doubt this?” Immediately I can be peaceful again.

    Sometimes, in complete forgetfulness of Krishna, I determine that I am going to do something, and everything backfires. Up comes the feelings of frustration and anger – but then I remember, and begin to laugh.

    So the mode of goodness enables us to understand that happiness is a choice. I wrote that on my wall. My personal experience of the mode of goodness is that the mode of goodness is like jewel with many different facets, polished faces. And once situated there in that vibrational range, the different facets become available to us.

    Some of those facets are: cheerfulness, feelings of gratitude, feelings o kindness, the ability to take pleasure in the good fortune of others (what Buddhists call sympathetic joy), compassion, enthusiasm, contentment…….there are so many. I have a list somewhere, a drawing of a big jewel with a different quality on each facet.

    Now the abiltity to feel sympathetic joy, mudita (I live with someone acquainted with Buddhist culture), this is very important. Because this sympathetic joy, is the basis of Krishna Consciousness. Really? Yes, really. Sympathetic joy is what the mahabhagawatas, the pure devotees feel in relation to the happiness of Radha and Krishna. Their sympathetic joy is so strong that they are 7/24 engaged in thinking how to increase the pleasure of Radha and Krishna.

    This is the inner content of what we call the serving mood. This is what makes service tasteful. so if we can gradually cultivate the mode of goodness, it is not a very great leap to transfer that way of feeling to the spiritual platform. Therefore the mode of goodness is a springboard into Krishna Consciousness. Well, we have meandered a bit from our topic – but these are nice ideas.

    So we devotees, we practice the mode of goodness, we practice happiness as a way of life, so that Krishna Consciousness is easy to slip into. Our Srila Prabhupada ended all of his letters to his students in this very way, “Chant Hare Krishna and be happy. Your ever well wisher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.”

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

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