Eudaimonia: a different kind of happiness

November 18, 2018
Filipe Bastos

As we move through the hustle and bustle of our frantic lives we may not have even asked ourselves if we are truly happy? Our long-term goal may well be to seek out the good life, but do we even know what that looks like? Do we already possess it? Or ironically, does constantly seeking the good life, in fact, reduce our chances of ever really being happy? 

Many of us have been slipping in and out of our day-to-day structures and routines telling ourselves that this is what’s required to be happy. After all, happiness is something we can only achieve when everything in our life finally looks the way we’ve been thinking it should, right? Cue the house, the car, the holidays, the partner, the perfect body, and so on. These materialist ventures don’t create lasting happiness, in which case a meaningful life and happiness remain elusive and potentially unachievable if we don’t know what we are striving for.


Happiness and well-being are complex constructs that rely heavily on a person’s optimal experiences and functioning. Current research on well-being has been derived from two general perspectives: the hedonic approach, which focuses on happiness and defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance; and the concept of eudaimonia approach, which focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning.

Eudaimonia is a Greek word, which refers to a state of having a good indwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy, and prosperous. This word can represent the actions required that result in the well-being of an individual. That being said, Eudaimonia is the notion of being in an objective state rather than a subjective state, which suggests that a person has lived their life well regardless of the subjective mental health and emotions they are experiencing. Therefore, in this case, Eudaimonia places true happiness at the feet of the individual regarding their own subjective appreciation of life.

Ancient Greek

However, the Greek word Eudaimonia literally means “the state of having a good indwelling spirit”. Therefore “happiness” is not at all an adequate translation of this word. “Eudaimonia” is an Aristotelian term from his Nicomachean Ethics which was very inadequately translated as happiness. So does this mean possessing good indwelling spirits made the ancient Greek concept of happiness easier to achieve?!

Aristotle was aware that behaviours and actions are not futile because they each have an aim. Every action aims at some good. The good they speak of is Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is happiness and contentment. Fulfilled by the idea that we are living the best kind of daily life with our actions and behaviour all leading us to a sense of good, underpinning Eudaimonic well-being and happiness.

History of Eudaimonism

Speaking of ancient Greek’s, Socrates believed that human beings desire the state of Eudaimonia more than anything else. However, his understanding of Eudaimonia was developing a sense of personal growth, such as courage, self-control, and wisdom allowing an individuals’ psychological well-being to flourish. These elements of personal development could be practiced and very much achieved by all, effective practice lead to ownership and achievement of Eudaimonia.

In contrast, Plato’s understanding of Eudaimonia had a more emotional element to it. For example, if a rational individual carried out an evil act, they may well feel guilty for their actions leading to unhappiness, negative emotions, and a poor sense of Eudaimonic well-being.
Therefore Plato’s understanding of happiness stemmed from the rational mind taking charge of the emotional and spiritual aspects before any actions, behaviours or decisions could be made that may lead to happiness.  

Definition and Etymology

In terms of its etymology, Eudaimonia is an abstract noun derived from the words  (‘good, well’) and daímōn (‘dispenser, tutelary deity), the latter referring maybe to a minor deity or a guardian spirit.

The word daímon derives from the same root as the Ancient Greek verb daimōnai (“to divide”), which allows us to rethink the following concepts of Eudaimonia and “rational activity linked with dividing” in a good way. The term Eudaimonia was coined by Plato himself and means “human flourishing” or “the good life.” It is defined as a state of Eudaimonic well-being characterized by human excellence.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that everyone agrees that Eudaimonia is the highest good for humans, but that there is substantial disagreement on what sort of life counts as doing and living well; i.e. Eudaimon life:

Verbally there is a very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is [Eudaimonia], and identify living well and faring well with being happy, but with regard to what [Eudaimonia] is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think, it is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth or honour… 

Therefore, looking at Aristotelian ethics he points out in his Nicomachean Ethics, that a good life is one that is objectively desirable and means living well is not saying very much at all. Aristotle provides various popular conceptions of the ideal happy life for human beings. He mentions three different types of lives: a (1) life for pleasure, (2) life of political activity, (3) a philosophical one.

What Is Hedonia or Hedonism?

Philosophers have investigated happiness more thoroughly than anyone. They’ve boiled the debate over happiness down to a battle between two basic views, Hedonia and Eudaimonia. The former, Hedonia, is arguably the more famous (or notorious) of the two, though both find their roots in classical Greek philosophy.

Hedonic well-being is happiness that is the polar opposite of suffering; the presence of happiness indicates the absence of pain. Because of this, hedonists believe that the purpose of life is to maximize happiness, which minimizes misery.

Eudaimonic and Hedonic happiness both seem to play a role in overall well-being. Hedonic adaptation, also known as the “Hedonistic treadmill”, notes that in general people tend to return to a baseline level of happiness no matter what happens in life. Therefore, despite spikes in pleasure and enjoyment during Hedonic experiences such as going to a fun party, eating a delicious dinner, or winning an award; the novelty soon wears off, and people return to their usual levels of happiness.

Psychological research has shown we all have a happiness set point. Psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky has identified three factors that contribute to a person’s happiness set point and how much they matter:

  • 50% of an individual’s happiness set point is determined by genetics.
  • 10% is the result of circumstances that are out of one’s control, like where they’re born and who their parents are.
  • 40% of one’s happiness set point is under their control.

Therefore, although we can determine how happy or unhappy we are to a certain degree, most of our happiness is determined not by things we can control but by things we cannot control.

Hedonic adaptation is more likely to occur when one experiences fleeting pleasures. This can improve mood for a short time, but this is only temporary happiness. If you want to keep yourself from returning to your happiness set point, then you need to engage in more Eudaimonic activity. Meaningful activities like doing things you enjoy require more thought and effort than rational activity, which require little effort to enjoy.  However, although Hedonic activities become increasingly ineffective at eliciting happiness over time, eudaemonic activities become more effective.

While this may make the path to happiness seem like Eudaemonia, sometimes it isn’t practical to engage in the activity that evokes Eudaemonic happiness. Treating yourself to a simple Hedonic pleasure, like eating a piece of cake or listening to your favourite song, can be an easy way to boost your mood. Therefore, both Eudaimonic and Hedonic happiness have a role to play in one’s overall well-being.

Does happiness equal pleasure?

Pleasure is a response to an external stimulus. Whereas happiness is experienced through internal balance. In a blank white room, laying with one’s eyes closed, it’s possible to feel happiness. But it’d be quite a stretch to declare any pleasure. This concept can keep going. One may be cold, and wet, in the middle of nowhere alone. But it may be that the wilderness isolation is for a great cause, so that person is happy to do it.

How else can it be demonstrated that happiness and pleasure are independent variables? Let’s imagine someone surrounded by great pleasures, for instance, delicious food, luxurious environment, beautiful company, fine music. Could that person also feel lost, sad, and alone? Yes. So happiness is not equal to pleasure.

It happens that sometimes pleasure and happiness occur together. That’s a truly lucky event. But they don’t need each other to exist.

Positive Psychology 

Contemporary literature has suggested the idea of positive psychology leads to happiness. Maslow (1950) coined this term and referred it to authentic happiness that is reached through a balanced view of human nature, human potential, strengths, and positive emotions. The focus of positive psychology in the quest for happiness and life satisfaction is to utilise individual strengths and emotions to positively and effectively impact certain aspects of your life. For example, rather than relying on the science of happiness such as gaining likes on social media or road running to make yourself feel better, a positive psychology approach takes ownership of one’s emotions, strengths and attributes and applies them to improve people’s quality of life directly.

In this sense, the term ‘positive psychology’ could relate to the study of happiness. Where individuals over time, can learn, study and grow their understanding of personal strengths and qualities. This examination of self allows people from all walks of life the opportunity to become happier and to live a better quality and more fulfilled life. It’s suggested that this approach also helps us to overcome life events and barriers as we meander through our day-to-day routines. Some of the best ways to combat disappointments and setbacks include strong social relationships and individual character strengths. Positive psychology teaches us that we can build up resilience to these setbacks and still achieve happiness and good psychological well-belling as a result. Money itself doesn’t necessarily buy well-being or lasting happiness. However, a positive psychology approach involves the emotions behind the concept of money, such as spending it on loved ones, good causes, helping out others, and so forth. The study of positive psychology finds that it’s not the materialistic value of money that supports true happiness, rather the emotions and feelings assigned to its spending.  

In summary, happiness acutely correlates with an evaluation of an individual’s quality of life, therefore making it a subjective matter. However historic descriptions of achieving a Eudaimon life are strongly influenced by obtaining the good life as a desirable object.

Whereas happiness is closely associated with an assessment of the quality of an individual’s life, which is purely subjective, Eudaimonia is more concerned with life as a desirable objective. This notion makes Eudaimonia a more comprehensible and embracing idea for us all. The pursuit of happiness will always heavily rely on the outcome of this pursuit, have I achieved happiness? Whereas if we chose to live our lives not in pursuit of happiness but rather in a Eudaimonically oriented way then Eudaimonic happiness would be a by-product to many other positive emotions and achievements throughout this journey.

How to Achieve Eudaimonia

For Aristotle, Eudaimoniawas achieved through living virtuously – or what you might describe as being good. It does not guarantee happiness in the modern sense of happiness. It might mean doing something that causes us to feel unhappy, like telling someone an unpleasant truth.

Virtue is moral excellence. It means allowing something to act in harmony or accord with its purpose. Eudaimonia life is a life of virtue devoted to developing the excellence of being human. For Aristotle, this meant studying virtue ethics and practicing virtues like courage, wisdom, good humor, kindness, and more.

Now, when we consider a flourishing person, virtue isn’t always at the forefront of our minds. Instead, we think of someone who is relatively successful at something, healthy and has access to a range of good things in life. We often think that flourishing means having good qualities plus good fortune, but that isn’t always true. A virtuous life is what a flourishing person should aim for, rather than a materialistic one.

In his book “Nicomachean Ethics”, “Eudaimonia” means “Happiness”. Etymologically, it consists of the words ”eu” means “good” and “daimon” means” spirit”.

In the easy explanation, it means, Aristotle said, “The human being should not be more courageous and neither more cowardly. Human beings should be more Virtuous”. Aristotle takes the pursuit of virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in Eudaimonia.

Here are some ideas to focus on with the intent to achieve a Eudaimon life: 

  • Know what life goals you have, what you strive for, your core beliefs, and drivers for a complete life.
  • Focus your capabilities and skills towards the attainment of life goals.
  • Developing your best potentials driven by your inner desire to reach the pinnacle of your domain.
  • Get engaged in your activities, perform the required actions and get active in your pursuit.
  • Express your goals, desires, progress, and feelings to others, getting feedback and support.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the difference between happiness and eudaimonia?

The English translation of eudaimonia is happiness, which is unfortunate because Eudaimonia, as Aristotle and other ancient philosophers understood it, does not consist of a state of mind or a feeling of pleasure as happiness often implies. For Aristotle, Eudaimonia is the highest human good, whereas real happiness is a state of feeling in oneself.

Eudaimonia vs Happiness

Happiness is usually understood in the Enlightenment sense as a series of repeated pleasures. It’s a feeling one has about life. 

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is activity across a lifetime. It is something that one does. Aristotle describes it in the simplest of terms as doing well and faring well. 

What is an example of eudaimonia?

The eudaimonia approach is the pursuit of personal fulfillment and a realizing of a person’s potential. This is called Eudaimonic Pursuit. Volunteering to help people, for example, would benefit your Eudaimonic well-being by helping contribute to your community. 

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