Aristotle's Eudaimonia: Living Well and Doing Good
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 11, 2021
Eudaimonia is a term often used in describing Aristotle's philosophy of wellbeing. Modern psychology borrows many of his Eudaimonia concepts.
We want to be happy. We chase things that delight our being. The pursuit of happiness is a given; how we pursue happiness, well, that is a complex subject, hotly debated throughout history. We hold our right to pursue happiness as sacred, if not, even, and obligation to ourselves. If we have any chance of arriving at a destination, we must have an idea of what that destination is, and where it can be found. If we want to be happy, we must know our definition of happiness, and how to achieve that ideal.
At Flourishing Life Society, we have spent a great deal of time and resources researching happiness. Much of our research is concentrated on behaviors that improve our lives. Our definition of happiness tends aligns well with Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia than a the traditional definition of the word 'happiness.'
What is Happiness?
The English word 'happy' comes from the Norse word 'happ', which means fortune or luck. We see the Norse influence on other English words such as: perhaps, happenstance, and hapless (Philosophy Terms, 2018).
Originally, happiness implied 'fortunate.' Time and culture slowly bend meanings and definitions change. Happiness is no different. Mostly, we use the term happiness to describe an emotional state. "I am happy to see you."
I struggle to believe that the founding fathers had this definition of happiness in mind when in 1776 they wrote that "all men" had the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Declaration of Independence
Eudaimonia is a flourishing state of individual happiness. Aristotle envisioned eudaimonia happiness as realizing one’s virtuous potnetial.
Hedonia vs. Eudaimonia
Eudaimonia is a combination of the prefix eu (which means good, or well), and daimon (which means spirit) (Moore, 2021). Together eu and daimon often is translated to mean "human striving or the best good" (Tedechi, et al. 2018).
Eudaimonia is “an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue” (Haidt, 2006). Eudaimonia views life through a wide-angled lens, striving for purpose and deeper fulfillment, even when those strivings travel through momentary discomforts. Eudaimonia is effort directed towards full development of our potential.
Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener provided several examples of eudaimonia in their wonderful book The Upside of Your Down Side. "Eudaimonic activity is volunteering time to help somebody else, persevering at a valued goal in the face of obstacles, expressing gratitude to somebody who has been helpful, and striving for excellence in the development and use of one’s talents..." (2015, location 2798).
For Aristotle eudaimonia was the state of flourishing, or living well. A state that requires living a life in accordance with virtue.
Psychology literature often refer to similar terms that share Aristotle's definition of eudaimonia. Some of the terms are meaning, joy, self-actualization, fully developed person, or fully integrated adult.
Hedonia is the more immediate feeling affects experienced from satisfying a need of something we perceive as important. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener explain "hedonia is that sense of well-being you get on seeing the first finished copy of your new book, crossing the finish line after running a marathon, after a bout of great sex, on hearing you’re getting a good pay raise at work, and while enjoying a party where everybody feels comfortable enough to sing, dance, and be silly" (location 2794).
Hedonia is associated with present moment thinking. "Hedonia is about having a pleasing life, period" (Bauer, et al. 2014, page 187). In psychological research hedonia wellbeing is often defined as a combination of pleasurable experiences and subjective satisfaction in life (page 187).
A recent tweet from a person I follow wrote, "my goal in life is to be happy all the time." This popular mindset holds hedonia experiences as the primary purpose, motivating action.
At Flourishing Life Society, we hold a somewhat different view.
See Happy All the Time for more on this topic.
Hedonia and Eudaimonia are Not Opposites
Hedonia and eudaimonia are not opposites, placed on different ends of a continuum. Perhaps, and as I believe, wellness is comprised of healthy doses of both.
Tal Ben-Shahar Harvard professor also holds this opinion. He defines happiness as, "the overall experience of pleasure and meaning." He continues, "a happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful. The definition does note pertain to a single moment bet to generalized aggregates of one’s experiences: a person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy" (2007, page 33).
Jess Cotton wrote in reference to eudaimonia that "what distinguishes happiness from fulfilment is pain. It is eminently possible to be fulfilled and – at the same time – under pressure, suffering physically or mentally, overburdened and, quite frequently, in a tetchy mood. This is a psychological nuance that the word happiness makes it hard to capture; for it is tricky to speak of being happy yet unhappy or happy yet suffering. However, such a combination is readily accommodated within the dignified and noble-sounding letters of Eudaimonia" (2017).
"Creating and cultivating oneself—giving style to one’s character—does not mean simply acting on every instinct and drive one might have."
Eudaimonia and Hedonia as Motivation
Both eudaimonia and hedonia motivate action. Hedonia is captured in Freud's "pleasure principle" while eudaimonia leans more on a growth mindset. Hedonia satisfies basic needs at the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs while eudaimonia more accurately portrays the pinnacle of self-actualization.
See Self-Actualization for more on this topic.
Bauer et al. suggest that hedonia is safety seeking, relying on immediate comfort and security while eudaimonia motivations pursue growth (2015, p. 186).
Both safety and growth are necessary for navigating life. The young child explores his world, drifting from his mother's arms to experience novelty, but, routinely, runs back for reassurance.
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener point out that both pleasure and meaning are necessary, working together. "The point here is that pleasure and meaning work like a seesaw, and it’s important to have both in your life at different times (and occasionally even at the same time.)" (2015, location 2833).
Some pleasures we forego, enduring discomfort for a greater good, enhancing our futures or to benefit others and their futures. However, we also need some pleasure. Without pleasure, life loses much of its flavor.
Ben-Shahar explains "while the happy person experiences highs and lows, his overall state of being is positive. Most of the time he is propelled by positive emotions such as joy and affection rather than negative ones such as anger and guilt. Pleasure is the rule; pain, the exception. To be happy, we have to feel that on a whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive" (2007, page 36).
Putting It All Together
Like most of life, there is no perfect algorithm for wellness. We are challenged to balance our pursuits, identify feelings, and constantly adjust as our dynamic life sails through the storms and joys on unknown seas. Often, we find pursuits that provide both hedonia feeling affects and eudaimonia meaning. We must recognize and cherish these activities, leaning on them to build a foundation of wellness. Other times, we must engage in activities that challenge our senses, teetering on the edge of frustration and sorrow, knowing the work must be done for a greater cause. And still, other times, we can tease our senses with pleasure, escaping the weight of the moment through amusements that distract. A healthy balancing that is constantly checked and adjusted, leads to a our goal of living well, living good, and living happy.
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Ben-Shahar, B. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education; 1st edition.
Bauer, J., Park, S., Montoya, R., & Wayment, H. (2014). Growth Motivation Toward Two Paths of Eudaimonic Self-Development. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(1), 185-210.
Cotton, J. (2017). A Better Word than Happiness: Eudaimonia. The School of Life. Published 8-24-2017. Accessed May 9, 2021.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1st edition.
Kashdan. T. B., Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self--Not Just Your "Good" Self--Drives Success and Fulfillment.
Moore, C. (2021) What is Eudaimonia? Aristotle and Eudaimonic Well-Being. PositivePsychology. Published 5-3-2021. Accessed 5-9-2021.
Philosophy Terms (2018). Eudaimonia. Published 10-25-2018. Visited 5-10-2021.
Tedeschi, R., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., Calhoun, L. G. (2018) Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications. Routledge; 1st edition