Seven years ago, my colleagues and I wrote an article that committed heresy. We disagreed with Aristotle. This is not something mere mortals are supposed to do. After all, he is one of the smartest men in human history and beyond reproach (at least according to reviewers who disliked our article so much that they asked to write commentaries - read the first, second, and third, and then our response to them). What is our point of departure? It is the concept of eudaimonia. According to modern psychologists who translate Aristotle's work, eudaimonia is one of two types of happiness; the other type of happiness is hedonism. For definitions, read the descriptions of the so-called two types of happiness by Dr. Alan Waterman (an outspoken, highly cited psychologist on this topic):
Within hedonism, happiness in the form of “hedonia” is the goal to be
sought, and the greater the extent of pleasure experienced the better. Within this context, no consideration is given to the source of happiness. In contrast, according to Aristotle, the goal of a good life is excellence in the pursuit of fulfillment of personal potentials in ways that further an individual’s purposes in living. Happiness in the form of “eudaimonia” is a positive subjective state that is the product (or perhaps a by-product) of the pursuit of self-realization rather than the objective being sought.
In case you think I am cherry picking, here is another description of the so-called two types of happiness by a team of eminent psychologists, Drs. Richard Ryan and Ed Deci:
In both traditional and current views, hedonia and eudaimonia are often juxtaposed as opposing perspectives on human wellness. The hedonic approach defines well-being as happiness, interpreted as the occurrence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect (Kahneman et al.,1999)...In contrast, the concept of eudaimonia, generally defined as living a complete human life, or the realization of valued human potentials (Ryan & Deci, 2001)...
Aristotle (1985 translation of the Nicomachean Ethics by T. Irwin) emphatically rejected hedonism as a goal in life: “The many, the most vulgar, seemingly conceive the good and happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. Here they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals.” (p. 7)
Granted, I have nothing more than an amateur's interest in philosophy and in no way do I necessarily have a better read on Aristotle's work than any one else. But there is one thing that I want to explain about Aristotle (as I interpret his words). I think that psychologists misinterpret Aristotle when they accuse him of dichotomizing happiness into two types. I dont think this is accurate. I think that what you read in the Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle's rejection of Platonic 'forms' or one universal and eternal idea to represent any one thing. In other words, Plato thought there was one universal such as an eternal form of 'love' and the closer that our experience of love corresponds to that form then the closer it is to 'Truth.' I think Aristotle was moving away from Plato in this area by stating that the good life is that which is sought for its own sake (end). But, Aristotle qualified this by adding that to understand the good life we need to examine both forms and ends (means and ends) as elements of the good life. To say this differently, hedonic activities (e.g., cooking and eating lobster eggs benedict, getting and giving a massage) may be both means and ends, and as such are fundamental to living the good life. As means, hedonic activities may serve the end of virtuous activity (e.g., by giving a massage, you showcase your capacity to love another person) but virtuous activity may also produce hedonic feelings as a byproduct (e.g., by standing up to a bully to protect someone, we feel invigorated and prideful). Thus, pleasure is to be experienced ALONG WITH virtuous activity as elements of the good life.
What I'm saying is that splitting happiness into hedonic and eudaimonic activities and claiming that one is qualitatively better than the other is foolhardy and impedes scientific progress (and is probably a misread of what Aristotle intended).
At this point you might be asking, what is the evidence for one vs. two types of happiness? If so, I'm glad you asked. My colleagues and I recently conducted a study to test this very question. We are confident in this study because we sampled 7,617 people from 109 different countries from 6 of the 7 world continents. We asked a single question:
Is a person's hedonic well-being (e.g., satisfaction with life, subjective happiness, and amount of negative emotions) independent of their sense of eudaimonia (e.g., meaning and purpose in life, autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, self-acceptance)? Or do scores on measures of well-being tend to converge with other measures of well-being?
The answer was quite clear. The correlation between the so-called hedonic well-being measures and eudaimonia measures was .96! This might be a good time to mention that this is as strong of a correlation as you will ever get.
What is the take-home message? The same as what my colleagues and I wrote in 2009:
We remain steadfast in our original assertion that existing evidence does not support a conceptualization of two qualitatively distinct forms of happiness...Our reading of the research literature suggests that there is good evidence that eudaimonic and hedonic aspects of well-being can operate in tandem. Focusing research attention on specific dimensions of well-being allows for greater clarity in communication, facilitates comparison and promotes flexibility in the mixture of well-being variables used in research.
Source: Todd Kashdan
Can we please stop the rat-race between abstract, wastebasket terms? There is a better approach. Learn about yourself and other people by getting information on where they fall on different dimensions. With greater precision in our language and our measures, we can become more precise with what we want to target in improving our quality of life.
For a copy of the article, go to my website:
Disabato, D.J., Goodman, F.R., Kashdan, T.B., Short, J.L., & Jarden, A. (in press). Different types of well-being? A cross-cultural examination of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Psychological Assessment
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com