Published: 2010-06-18

“For some identify happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with a kind of philosophic wisdom, others with these, or one of these, accompanied by pleasure or not without pleasure; while others include also external prosperity. Now … it is not probable that these should be entirely mistaken, but rather that they should be right in at least some one respect or even in most respects.” Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 8

The above quote, from one of the West’s most eminent philosophers, Aristotle, illuminates the complex nature of defining an answer to one of humankind’s most important questions, “What makes us happy?”.

The study of happiness was once limited to the realm of philosophy, however recently, science has become increasingly interested in developing an understanding of well being and is turning to its philosophical roots for possible insights. Aristotle made an insightful distinction between two classes of happiness, that derived from pleasure, hedonia, and that derived from a life of virtue and meaning, eudaimonia.

This distinction is now being adopted by some contemporary psychologists in their pursuit of a scientific explanation to this fundamental question. However, vital aspects of his philosophy seem to have been lost in translation. Complex and convoluted constructs have been developed, and some psychologists are now questioning the usefulness of this distinction (Kashdan et al. 2008), albeit their judgment may be premature (Waterman 2008).

The psychological construction of eudaimonia is still in its infancy and there is already support for the distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia, not only from philosophy, but furthermore from psychological and physiological research. The aim of this paper is to;

  • explain why the concept of Eudaimonia has been adopted in the study of well-being and how psychological research appears to support this distinction ;
  • present preliminary physiological evidence that suggests eudaimonic constructs could provide value over and above the current constructs of wellbeing;
  • explore the philosophical conception of eudaimonia and how vital aspects may have been lost The Psychological Adoption and Adaptation of Eudaimonia in its psychological adaptation and ;
  • suggest a method to help distill the essence of eudaimonia from its philosophical roots, which could be informative in devising an operational definition for psychological research.

The Adoption of Eudaimonia into Psychology

Historically, there have been a number of measures constructed to evaluate well-being and quality of life (Bradburn 1969; Fordyce 1988). Two of the most dominant measures over the last few decades have been Bradburn’s Affect Balance Scale (Bradburn 1969) and Subjective Well Being (SWB) (Diener 1984).

Both measures evaluate affect, splitting it into two dimensions of positive and negative, which broadly equate to the experience of pleasurable and unpleasurable emotions and moods (Kahneman 1999). SWB however, also introduces a third, cognitive dimension, where the respondent evaluates their own Satisfaction With Life (SWL; Diener et al. 1985). SWB has reigned as the prevailing measure of wellbeing for the last 20 years.

One of the major criticisms of SWB is that it is not grounded in a well considered theoretical framework (Ryff and Keyes 1995). The measure arose, almost inadvertently, from questionnaires designed to evaluate interventions. Instead of defining a measure and then developing an appropriate questionnaire, the measure was defined by the questionnaires.

As a result, it has been argued that SWB fails to encapsulate the philosophical complexity of what it means to be truly psychologically well (Vittersø 2003) and misses vital eudaimonic elements such as meaning, purpose and personal expressiveness (McGregor and Little 1998, King and Napa 1998, Waterman 1993).

Diener contends however, that a stringent theoretical framework to define well being is unnecessary, as it is more appropriate for respondents rather than psychologists to determine whether they are psychologically well. According to studies using this measure, “most people are happy” (Diener and Diener 1996), although seems somewhat contrary to the evident proliferation of self-help literature.

A number of psychological studies support the distinction that there are other dimensions to well-being distinct from, although correlated with, SWB, such as meaning (McGregor and Little 1998, King and Napa 1998) and personal growth (Compton et al. 1996).

These dimensions fall under Waterman’s psychological classification of eudaimonia, a well being that consists of more than mere pleasure, but in the realization of one’s true nature or “daimon” (Waterman 1993). SWB conversely, has been largely categorized as a hedonic measure, although there is still debate as to whether the SWL component in itself is exclusively hedonic (Peterson, Park and Seligman 2005).

Not only has psychological research demonstrated that eudaimonic constructs are distinct from, although correlated with hedonic well being and SWB (Keyes, Shmotkin and Ryff 2002), but physiological studies also seem to support this distinction.

Physiological Support of Eudaimonia

Another facet to support the validity of the eudaimonic construct comes from physiological research. Although at present only a few studies have been undertaken into the physiological substrates of eudaimonia, the preliminary findings suggest that it has distinct biological and neurological markers.

One such study by Urry et al. (2004) investigated the relationship of eudaimonic and hedonic measures with levels of prefrontal cortex (PFC) activation using electro-encephalography (EEG). Previous research supported the view that the PFC has asymmetric involvement with the experience of affect, however the relationship with SWL and eudaimonic constructs had not been explored.

The eudaimonic measure used was Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Well-Being (PWB: Ryff 1989) and the hedonic components were separated out into the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS; Diener et al. 1985) and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark and Tellegen 1988).

Individuals with high and stable levels of left relative to right frontal activation report greater dispositional positive affect and lower dispositional negative affect than individuals showing a greater levels of right activation relative to left. However, the results demonstrated that not only was positive affect associated with greater left prefrontal activation, but PWB was too, after controlling for affect.

Interestingly, this effect was not seen for SWL. This research therefore suggests that higher scores in PWB lead to greater left prefrontal activation over and above that associated with positive affect, whereas SWL does not.

Additionally, there may also be related health benefits as increased left relative to right activation has been associated with improved immune functioning (Rosenkranz et al. 2003). Interestingly, this research could also add to the debate as to whether SWL is a eudamonic or hedonic construct. Although we do not have a hard diagnostic test to determine exactly what would constitute eudaimonia, it does appear to exhibit different neural activity to PWB which has broadly been determined eudaimonic.

Another notable study investigated the relationship between eudaimonia, again measured by PWB, and positive affect, measured by PANAS and MASQ ( Watson et al. 1995) on a wide array of biological markers (Ryff, Burton and Love 2004). Rather than look at the effects of PWB as a whole, the individual components of PWB (positive relations with others, self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery and autonomy) were analyzed in conjunction with the bio-markers.

The most salubrious effects were associated with those who scored highly on purpose in life and personal growth; they started the day with lower levels of salivary cortisol and stayed lower throughout the day; and had significantly higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). Purpose in life in isolation, was also found to be linked to lower levels of inflammation response.

Interestingly, only one significant effect was reported between positive affect and the biological markers, which was higher levels of HDL. There were limitations to this study, such as a small sample size and that the participants were all elderly women over the age of 65. However the results do suggest that further research is warranted.

This physiological research not only suggests that eudaimonic constructs provide additional health benefits unaccounted for by positive affect or SWL alone, but also helps identify which components of the constructs have distinct markers. For example, in the above study purpose in life and personal growth seemed to stand out for distinct physiological benefits.

Such research could also be informative in helping distill the essence of eudaimonia into an operational definition. As we will examine in the next section, many diverse psychological constructs have been developed that purportedly fall under the eudaimonic umbrella. However, whether they can truly be classified as eudaimonic is questionable.

Is it Eudaimonia that Psychology has adopted?

The concept of eudaimonia can be traced back to Hellenic philosophy, and was expounded upon, among others, by Socrates, the Stoics and most extensively Aristotle. Whilst each of their conceptions of eudaimonia differs in the details, there is strong consensus that virtue is necessary to achieve Eudaimonia. Socrates advocated that virtue is not only necessary but was sufficient.

According to Socrates, a person that is not virtuous cannot be happy, and a person with virtue cannot fail to be happy. Aristotle also agrees that eudaimonia was achieved not through pleasure but through a life of virtue, although their notions of virtues differ slightly. Socrates notion is similar to contemporary moral virtues such as self-control, piety, justice and wisdom.

However, Aristotle’s conception of virtue was more encompassing than his predecessors and he distinguished between virtues of character (moral virtues) and those of the intellect. He implied a hierarchy of virtues where:

“….if there be more than one virtue, [act] in accordance with the best and most complete” (Aristotle/ Ross, 1925).

He subordinated virtues of character to the virtues of intellect, which entail reason and contemplation. In summary though, eudaimonia could be considered as a “morality of happiness” (Annas, 1993).

Psychology has formulated a number of constructs purporting to be eudaimonic, these include

  1. Psychological Well-Being (PWB) defined by positive relations with others, self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery and autonomy (Ryff 1989);
  2. Self Determination Theory (SDT) which proposes we look to satisfy essential human needs of competence, autonomy, and belonging (Ryan and Deci 2000);
  3. living with meaning and purpose (McGregor and Little 1998, King and Napa 1998, Seligman 2002);
  4. intrinsic motivation and pursuing goals that are congruent with one’s interests and values (Ryan, Huta and Deci 2008);
  5. personal expressiveness, that entails undertaking activities that make us feel engaged, alive, and fulfilled (Waterman 1993; Waterman, Schwartz and Conti 2008);
  6. vitality or calm, energetic feelings (Nix et al. 1999);
  7. being open to new experiences and pursuing novelty, change, and personal growth (Kopperud and Vittersø 2008) and; 8) flow, defined as being completely absorbed in an activity and functioning at one’s fullest capacity (Csíkszentmihályi 1992) .

What is astonishing is that the majority of these constructs are ethically neutral and none have an explicit reference to moral virtue. Is this the same eudaimonia that originated from Hellenic philosophy? Broadly the constructs seem to reflect a rather narrow interpretation of Aristotle’s advocacy that one should live in accordance with one’s daimon, or true self, and develop ” that which is best within us” (Aristotle/Ross 1925).

Unquestionably, Aristotle has a teleological philosophy that emphasizes the importance of goals and development to provide a unity and focus to life. Although these goals are to be derived through sound reason and are to be embedded in the context of ethics. However, the psychological constructs seem to have isolated personal development from moral virtue.

Waterman himself acknowledges his divergence from Aristotle’s philosophy (2008):

“Whereas Aristotle limited the range of the constituents of eudaimonia to contemplation and moral virtue, building on the work of modern eudaimonists I broadened consideration of the construct to include efforts directed at the development of one’s skills and talents and the furthering of one’s purposes in living, as these are consistent with the daimon.”

Waterman’s inclusion of self-development and consultation of contemporary The Psychological Adoption and Adaptation of eudaimonistic philosophers is to be commended, however it appears that he, among others, has isolated development and removed it from its essential moral context. Waterman even goes as far as to use an example of skiing to demonstrate that it could be determined as hedonistic or eudaimonic as:

“…an activity like skiing that requires a greater expenditure of effort, involves a higher level of competence, and promotes the development of a person’s potentials…”

and could therefore be categorized as eudaimonic.

Even much criminal activity could fit within Waterman’s description. However, it is clearly questionable whether these activities are imbued with virtues of character or intellect. Ryff (1995) similarly concludes that eudaimonia:

“involves activities that are goal directed and have purpose. Most importantly the essential end point is to achieve the best that is within us”,

but again the moral context is not explicit.

Flow is another good example that implies a morally neutral interpretation of eudaimonia. Flow is defined as:

“the intense experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity, which can be either physical or mental. Attention is fully invested in the task at hand and the person functions at her or his fullest capacity” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992),

again devoid of any implicit or explicit reference to virtue.

Currently, the common element among the broad range of constructs is the exclusion of an explicit affective component (Kashdan et al. 2008). However, I question whether this is sufficient criteria to be determined as eudaimonic. The field’s reluctance to incorporate an explicit reference to virtue could be because science has historically distanced itself from such issues, leaving them to the domains of religion and philosophy, while it continues in its cold pursuit of knowledge.

However, if it is true that virtuous activity is a necessary cause of well being and it can be investigated empirically, then this subject now falls into the domain of science.

Although psychology has clearly lost the explicit reference to virtue in its conceptions, I believe many of the variables will have virtue as a mediator. For example constructs that include not only personal development but also positive relations with others, meaning and purpose will often be indirectly associated with virtue and as such, may be capturing the essence of the philosophical meaning of eudaimonia.

Consequently, whilst there are numerous eudaimonic constructs that are arguably excessively divergent and could possibly be reduced to more succinct underlying factors, they do still offer value and capture dimensions of well being untapped by SWB.

The lack of consensus regarding the definition of eudaimonia is a problem though and is resulting in an increasing number of constructs falling under the umbrella.

Furthermore, multiple definitions can actually hinder inquiry into the relation between these concepts (Kashdan et al. 2008). However, we must also remember that the field is still in its infancy, and given the complex nature of the subject matter, differing and competing definitions should not be unexpected.

The Essence of Eudaimonia

The causes of happiness have been of central concern to philosophers and wisdom traditions across cultures for thousands of years. Texts contemplating the sources of happiness date back even prior to Hellenic philosophy, and can be found in Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy and Confucianism, among others.

Many of these concur with the intuitive distinction that genuine happiness is a quality of well-being deeper than that obtained from transient pleasures. As such, it is perhaps surprising that a sole philosopher’s conception has been adopted to provide insight and that eudaimonistic psychologists have tended to defend their constructs in relation to this sole philosophy.

I would argue that there is no need to adopt any stringent philosophical framework, but would suggest adopting a similar approach to what Peterson and Seligman used in devising the VIA Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), where they assessed a comprehensive range of resources and extracted commonalities.

For instance, Buddhism also makes the distinction between affective states aroused by the experience of pleasurable stimuli and that of Sukka, a more enduring trait, which arises from morality, the cultivation of mental balance and an understanding of the nature of phenomena (wisdom).

The idea of Sukha is not simply to achieve one’s own individual happiness in isolation from others, but to recognise one’s kinship with all beings, and help others develop a lasting state of well-being (Ekman et al. 2005). This philosophy parallels well with Aristotle, “who thought that people love behaving virtuously because we learn through practice that it is the most valuable possible endeavor.

It is valuable because when we are our ideal selves (whether intentionally or not) the lives of other people in our sphere of influence are benefited” (Kashdan et al. 2008). Confucius taught that the meaningful life can be found through jen. A person of jen, “wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others” (Keltner 2009).

I hypothesize that a meta-analysis across philosophies and wisdom cultures would identify broad commonalities of virtue; self development & knowledge and; self-transcendence. This type of analysis would be informative in providing a broader theoretical base to supplement the empirical analysis. Interestingly, statistical factor analysis from Boniwell, Osisn & Popovic (in press) suggests there are nine distinct but correlated factors that can be broadly cateogorised into three groups; effortful living in accordance with one’s values; growth, development and; self-transcendence.


Hellenic philosophy drew an insightful distinction between happiness derived from transient pleasure, hedonia and that derived from a life well lived, eudaimonia; a life composed of moral virtue, reason and self development. Recent research suggests that the dominant psychological paradigm of well being, Subjective Well Being, does not fully capture psychological wellness and thus some psychologists have drawn on this philosophical distinction as a framework.

However, the eudaimonia that psychology has adopted appears to have isolated self development, from the essential ethical context in which it developed. Nevertheless, the eudaimonic constructs that have emerged, still appear to add value over and above that of Subjective Well Being.

Furthermore, there is evidence from statistical factor analysis and physiological research that supports this distinction. A prime concern though, is the lack of conceptual unity among the constructs, although arguably, this should not be unexpected with a field stillin its infancy. However, if the field is to progress further, it is vital that eudaimonistic psychologists agree upon operational definitions and measures that capture the essence of eudaimonia.

This definition should not be limited to the framework of a single philosopher but instead should draw upon a wide range of theoretical resources and empirical research, which capitalises on the interdisciplinary interest being shown in the study of well being.

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