What Is Eudaimonia? Definition, Meaning, & Examples
By Arasteh Gatchpazian, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate
What is eudaimonia and eudaimonic well-being? Discover Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia, modern perspectives, and tips to help you achieve a more fulfilling life.
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The History Behind Happiness: Hedonia & Eudaimonia
What does it mean to be truly ‘be happy’ in life? Is it all just positive emotions and pleasure? Or is there something else? The other, less-talked-about part of happiness is Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is something like flourishing or prosperity. So where does this idea come from? Let's dive a little deeper.
What Is Hedonia (or Hedonism)?
Happiness can be traced back to the writings of ancient philosophers. Hedonism, originating from the Greek philosopher, Aristippus, aims to maximize pleasure (e.g., positive emotion) and minimize pain (e.g., negative emotion).
Hedonism focuses on the ‘feeling good’ aspect of happiness. When taken to the extreme, it can translate into the pursuit of pleasure and simply doing whatever you want that helps you attain this. Aristippus, for example, lived a life in pursuit of pleasure and did anything for the sake of sensual pleasure. He slept with many women, enjoyed fine food and old wines, and had little concern for the social standards upheld in Greece at the time. Given that he represents an extreme version of hedonism, what might this look like in modern life?
Although hedonism can vary from person to person, some examples include:
It’s not surprising that impulsivity and risk-taking are often related to the pursuit of pleasure, but is pleasure the same thing as happiness? If your answer is ‘no’, what is happiness and what is it made of?
What Is Eudaimonia? (A Definition)
Another way to understand happiness is with the concept of eudaimonia, which combines eu (good) and daimon (spirit). Eudaimonia has been defined as a life well-lived, or human flourishing.
This approach can be traced to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which focuses on the philosophical underpinnings of happiness (translated by Irwin, 1985). In this work, Aristotle emphasizes that acts of virtue, which involve making the right choices, are central to eudaimonia. Eudaimonia focuses on the ‘doing good’ aspect of happiness.
Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia focuses on the “pursuit of virtue, excellence, and the best within us” (Huta & Waterman, 2014; pp. 1426). Aristotle believed that happiness came from living a life aligned with virtues (Hursthouse, 1999). He presented these ideas in Nichomachean Ethics, where he describes how to achieve eudaimonia:
“A life of eudaimonia is a life of striving. It’s a life of pushing yourself to your limits, and finding success. A eudaimonistic life will be full of the happiness that comes from achieving something really difficult, rather than just having it handed to you.”
You may be thinking, “what exactly are the virtues to align your life with”? Well, this is up to you. Your virtues are based on what you believe is the morally ‘good’ way of leading your life. It won’t be the same for everyone, but Aristotle argues that an important part of happiness is the pursuit of virtue itself. Put differently, the intention to be virtuous is just as important as the acts of virtue (Annas, 1993).
Now that you’ve briefly learned about the philosophical roots of eudaimonia, it’s time to shift gears and focus on eudaimonic well-being in psychology. Is there a consensus on the definition of eudaimonia in psychology? What terms are related to eudaimonia? Keep reading to find out.
Humanistic Psychology and Eudaimonia
In addition to its philosophical underpinnings, eudaimonia has greatly influenced how psychologists conceptualize well-being. For example, in the 1960s, humanistic psychology was an approach that grew in popularity because it was supposed to address the limitations of behaviorism and psychoanalysis.
The most important characteristic of humanistic psychology is that people have free will or the freedom to make choices that can impact their well-being (Smith, 1990). It emphasizes that people come to know and accept themselves by reaching their unique potentials, known as their actualizing tendency.
You may have learned about Maslow’s (1970) hierarchy of needs before, where human needs are outlined in order of importance. At the bottom of the hierarchy, there are basic survival needs (e.g., hunger, sleep), which must be satisfied before needs that are higher up. At the very top of the hierarchy is self-actualization, which occurs when someone achieves their personal dreams and aspirations. It's thought that a person who achieves self-actualization has lived up to their true potential and is therefore truly happy.
Around this time, other concepts similar to eudaimonic well-being were starting to emerge, and it was beginning to be treated as a subjective state of being. This meant that psychologists could assess people’s eudaimonic well-being through questionnaires and surveys (Heintzelman, 2018). So how exactly do psychologists measure/operationalize eudaimonia?
Theories of Eudaimonic Well-Being
Like many concepts in psychology, there is no one way to define or measure eudaimonia that all psychologists agree on (Huta & Waterman, 2014). In fact, earlier psychological work examining happiness and well-being didn't even actually distinguish between eudaimonia and hedonism. This distinction has only emerged in recent research. Still, some psychologists argue that common measures of well-being focus more on hedonic well-being, such as subjective well-being (Diener, 1984).
Although there is no agreement on how to define eudaimonia, there are theories that capture eudaimonic well-being and clarify how you can achieve it in your own life. There are two main theories that fit nicely under the umbrella of eudaimonic well-being: The model of psychological well-being and self-determination theory.
The Theory of Psychological Well-Being
One of the most commonly used approaches to understanding happiness and well-being is the model of psychological well-being. Carol Ryff (1989) proposed her model of psychological well-being to capture all of the different elements in life that might play a role. Her model includes six key elements. In brackets, you’ll see a sample item from her scale for each.
Ryff’s model was rooted in other areas of psychology, like humanistic psychology (Kafka & Kozma, 2002). It is definitely broader than earlier measures but may leave questions about the relative importance of each element. For example, to me, it seems like ‘purpose in life’ would play a larger role than ‘environmental mastery’, but perhaps this also depends on each person.
Some of the elements also overlap with each other. For example, you might find a sense of purpose in life through your positive relations with others. Regardless of these issues, this model presents some good ideas for how we can achieve eudaimonia.
Video: What Makes a Good Life?
Ryan and Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory also embraces eudaimonic well-being. Their theory outlines three fundamental and universal psychological needs:
In most cases, having these three needs met will enhance your eudaimonic well-being.
Another part of self-determination theory talks about why we do things—what motivates us. According to self-determination theory, people engage in tasks because they are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something out of genuine interest and personal enjoyment, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to doing something to gain rewards and avoid punishments.
Intrinsic motivation might include:
Extrinsic motivation might include:
Which of these do you think promotes eudaimonic well-being? If you guessed intrinsic motivation, you’re correct. Intrinsic motivation is linked with other eudaimonic concepts you’ve read about, like self-actualization, while extrinsic motivation is not (Kasser & Ryan, 2001).
So, What Exactly Is Eudaimonia?
It can be a bit confusing and overwhelming when there are so many different ways to define eudaimonia. Sometimes, researchers address this issue by doing a systematic review of many papers that have looked at the topic of interest. This can help identify what different researchers agree on.
A systematic review on eudaimonia found that most definitions include the following four elements (Huta & Waterman, 2014):
Indeed, all of these are great skills to develop to boost well-being.
Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Well-Being (QEWB)
Interested in finding out how much eudaimonic well-being you experience in your life? Well, you’re in luck. The Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Well-Being (Waterman et al., 2010) was developed just for that. It has 21 items. You can answer the questions for yourself in Table 1 of the article here.
Here a few more questions you can ask yourself (drawn from IPIP.ori.org):
6 Ways to Increase Eudaimonic Well-Being in Your Life
You’ve learned a lot about eudaimonia, but perhaps you still need more help to create it. Here are a few actionable steps that you can take to promote eudaimonia:
1. Express your values and stick to them
We all have different values. If something is truly important to you, try your best to stand by it, even when others don’t agree. This will also help you feel true to yourself (see #6).
2. Write down your biggest goals
I know this sounds like a daunting task, but hear me out. This isn’t your usual career goal or where you want to see yourself in 20 years. These are goals that reflect your core values. Sure, they can be related to your career, but think about it at a broader level. For example, some of my big goals are ‘to help people who are struggling’ and ‘to stand up for marginalized groups’.
3. Develop and refine your skills and capabilities
No matter who you are, you are good at something (or many things). You have traits that can help you achieve your goals (re: #2). Maybe you’re good at giving advice, or you're detail-oriented, or you have an ear for music. Whatever it is, focus your efforts on developing the skills that bring you joy.
4. Focus on the quality, not quantity, of your relationships
This might seem obvious, but social connections play a major role in well-being. Of course, you’ll form new relationships as you start different chapters of your life, but remember not to neglect the people you cherish and truly care about. This can be as simple as expressing gratitude or calling them every now and then to check in. Also, sometimes relationships are no longer serving us, which may mean it’s time for those to end.
5. Do the things you genuinely want to do
As you read earlier, you might engage in something because it’s personally rewarding (i.e., intrinsic motivation) or externally rewarding (i.e., extrinsic motivation). Find things you love to do, and not only have to do. Yes, life is full of responsibilities and activities that are extrinsically motivated, but even a few side hobbies that bring you joy can be helpful in the long run.
6. Be authentic and true to yourself
Have you ever felt not quite like ‘yourself’ after saying or doing something? Me too. We all have those moments. It’s not a comfortable feeling because it feels like you’re lying to yourself. It’s no wonder that ‘authenticity’ is such a big part of eudaimonia.
When you have those less than authentic moments, ask yourself, why? Personally, the people I surround myself with make a huge impact on whether I feel like I can be myself.
7 Activities to Promote Eudaimonic Well-Being
Guides can be useful, but examples really bring the message home. So, what are some things you can do in daily life to promote eudaimonia? A study by Steger and colleagues (2008) outlined the following eudaimonic activities:
Although striving for eudaimonia may seem like the way to ‘be happy’ in life, sometimes it’s not practical to always engage in eudaimonic activities because they can be effortful and time-consuming.
Perhaps you’ve been having a tough day. You’re feeling overwhelmed and down, and all you want to do is engage in hedonic activities. For me, this might look like treating myself to dessert and binge-watching my favorite show. These activities can help boost your mood instantly and require a lot less effort than eudaimonic activities. Boosting your hedonic well-being can be good too.
Flourishing: The Combination of Hedonia & Eudaimonia
Hedonic and eudaimonic well-being are generally treated as separate things. However, recent research on ‘flourishing’ looks at how they work together. In a recent study, the authors examined people (known as ‘flourishers’) who are high in both hedonic and eudaimonic motives (Schotanus-Dijkstra et al., 2016). They found that flourishers (compared to those with hedonic motives only, eudaimonic motives only, or no motives at all) had the most favorable outcomes related to well-being. Clearly, both eudaimonic and hedonic activities play a role in our well-being. Perhaps striving for a balance between the two is life’s sweet spot.
Articles for Learning More About Eudaimonic Well-Being
Want to cultivate eudaimonia? Here are some more related articles to read.
Books Related to Eudaimonia
Here are a few books that may help you develop Eudaimonia and flourish.
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