What's the Difference Between Eudaimonic and Hedonic Happiness?

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Happiness can be defined in many ways. In psychology, there are two popular conceptions of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness is achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment, while eudaimonic happiness is achieved through experiences of meaning and purpose. Both kinds of happiness are achieved and contribute to overall well-being in different ways.

Key Takeaways: Hedonic and Eudaimonic Happiness

  • Psychologists conceive of happiness in two different ways: hedonic happiness, or pleasure and enjoyment, and eudaimonic happiness, or meaning and purpose.
  • Some psychologists champion either a hedonic or an eudaimonic idea of happiness. Most agree, however, that people require both hedonia and eudaimonia to flourish.
  • Hedonic adaptation states that people have a happiness set point they return to regardless of what’s happening in their lives.

Defining Happiness

While we know it when we feel it, happiness is challenging to define. Happiness is a positive emotional state, but each individual’s experience of that positive emotional state is subjective. When and why one experiences happiness can be the result of several factors working together, including culture, values, and personality traits.

Given the difficulty of coming to a consensus about how to define happiness, psychologists often refrain from using the term in their research. Instead, psychologists refer to well-being. While it could ultimately be seen as a synonym for happiness, conceptualizing well-being in psychological research has enabled scholars to better define and measure it.

Even here, however, there are multiple conceptions of well-being. For example, Diener and his colleagues has defined subjective well-being as a combination of positive emotions and how much one appreciates and is satisfied with their life. Meanwhile, Ryff and his colleagues challenged the hedonic perspective of Diener’s subjective well-being by proposing the alternative idea of psychological well-being. In contrast to subjective well-being, psychological well-being is measured with six constructs related to self-actualization: autonomy, personal growth, purpose in life, self-acceptance, mastery, and positive connections to others.

The Origins of the Concept of Hedonic Happiness

The idea of hedonic happiness dates back to the fourth century B.C., when a Greek philosopher, Aristippus, taught that the ultimate goal in life should be to maximize pleasure. Throughout history, a number of philosophers have adhered to this hedonic viewpoint, including Hobbes and Bentham. Psychologists who study happiness from a hedonic perspective cast a wide net by conceptualizing hedonia in terms of pleasures of both the mind and body. In this view, then, happiness involves maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.

In American culture, hedonic happiness is often championed as the ultimate goal. Popular culture tends to portray an outgoing, social, joyous view of life, and as a result, Americans often believe that hedonism in its various forms is the best way to achieve happiness.

The Origins of the Concept of Eudaimonic Happiness

Eudaimonic happiness gets less attention in American culture as a whole but is no less important in the psychological research of happiness and well-being. Like hedonia, the concept of eudaimonia dates back to the fourth century B.C., when Aristotle first proposed it in his work, Nicomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle, to achieve happiness, one should live their life in accordance with their virtues. He claimed people are constantly striving to meet their potential and be their best selves, which leads to greater purpose and meaning.

Like the hedonic perspective, a number of philosophers aligned themselves with the eudaimonic perspective, including Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Kant. Psychological theories like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which points to self-actualization as the highest goal in life, champion a eudaimonic perspective on human happiness and flourishing.

Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Happiness

While some psychological researchers who study happiness come from either a purely hedonic or purely eudaimonic point of view, many agree that both kinds of happiness are necessary to maximize well-being. For example, in a study of hedonic and eudaimonic behaviors, Henderson and colleagues found that hedonic behaviors increased positive emotions and life satisfaction and helped regulate emotions, while also reducing negative emotions, stress, and depression. Meanwhile, eudaimonic behavior led to greater meaning in life and more experiences of elevation, or the feeling one experiences when witnessing moral virtue. This study indicates that hedonic and eudaimonic behaviors contribute to well-being in different ways and therefore are both necessary to maximize happiness.

Hedonic Adaptation

While eudaimonic and hedonic happiness both appear to serve a purpose in overall well-being, hedonic adaptation, also referred to as the "hedonic treadmill," notes that, in general, people have a baseline of happiness that they return to no matter what happens in their lives. Thus, despite spikes in pleasure and enjoyment when one has a hedonic experience, such as going to a party, eating a delicious meal, or winning an award, the novelty soon wears off and people return to their typical levels of happiness.

Psychological research has shown we all have a happiness set point. Psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky has outlined the three components that contribute to that set point and how much each matters. According to her calculations, 50% of an individual’s happiness set point is determined by genetics. Another 10% is the result of circumstances that are out of one’s control, like where they’re born and who their parents are. Finally, 40% of one’s happiness set point is under their control. Thus, while we can determine how happy we are to a certain extent, over half of our happiness is determined by things we can’t change.

Hedonic adaptation is most likely to occur when one engages in fleeting pleasures. This kind of enjoyment can improve mood but this is only temporary. One way to combat a return to your happiness set point is to engage in more eudaimonic activities. Meaningful activities like engaging in hobbies require greater thought and effort than hedonic activities, which require little to no exertion to enjoy. Yet, while hedonic activities become less effective at evoking happiness over time, eudaimonic activities become more effective.

While this may make it seem like the path to happiness is eudaimonia, sometimes it’s not practical to engage in the activities that evoke eudaimonic happiness. If you’re feeling sad or stressed, often treating yourself to a simple hedonic pleasure, like eating dessert or listening to a favorite song, can be a quick mood booster that requires a lot less effort than engaging in a eudaimonic activity. Thus, both eudaimonia and hedonia have a role to play in one’s overall happiness and well-being.