By: Elijah Nimijean
This blog has been reviewed by Katya Santucci and Emeline Wyckaert, edited by Rémi Thériault, and formatted and published by Béa Schueller.
For as long as humanity has existed, people have been concerned with being happy. Regardless of your age, gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that being happy feels good. Doubtless there are innumerable ways we can feel happy — whether it comes from spending our time with friends, reading a good book, playing some video games, or working out — and many of us are already aware of this. But our main concern, and a question that has plagued psychologists and philosophers alike for millennia, lies with how we can make our happiness last; that is, how to transform it into a permanent and authentic state of being.
If you speak Greek, or happen to be a fan of etymology, you might already know how this opening paragraph relates to the title of this blog. Eudaimonia refers to a state of well-being that somewhat exceeds our traditional understanding of happiness: it may be more accurate to think of eudaimonia as the sense you feel when you are thriving, flourishing or prospering¹. Yet subtle distinctions emerge in eudaimonia’s definition depending on the author you are reading. Some ancient Greek philosophers — namely Socrates and Plato — believed that eudaimonia represented the apex “human good” amongst other goods (having friends; being honored; being healthy; being wealthy, etc.), which serve only to promote this ultimate state of wellness¹. These philosophers also believed that one might accomplish this good through virtuous behaviour (being pious, courageous, etc.)¹. In contrast, other philosophers (such as Aristotle) believed that eudaimonia was, put simply, more of a process. It was not enough for individuals to act virtuously, they needed to intend behaving virtuously. When individuals acted virtuously, and correspondingly, wanted to act virtuously, they would exist in a eudaimonic state¹. As you can see, eudaimonia is a central concept in many of the codes of ethics of ancient philosophers.
… Eudaimonia is the sense you feel when you are thriving, flourishing or prospering.
But the term also has a specific meaning in the field of positive psychology. Researcher Stephen M. Schueller details how within this discipline, academic scholars have identified two broad perspectives from which individuals may study well-being. The first is the hedonic perspective, in which an individual’s well-being is associated with their subjective condition of getting what they want, and the consequential pleasure that follows that attainment². In contrast, the eudaimonic perspective maintains that an individual’s well-being is tied to living well, and actualizing their own potential². Of the two approaches, Schueller writes that the latter have gained both increased attention and empirical support in recent years².
What “living well” means exactly can be a difficult question to address. Schueller writes that some outcomes or behaviours can improve an individual’s well-being, despite the fact that they do not provide any pleasure². Fellow researchers Ryan and Deci agree with this idea, highlighting the idea that pleasure should not necessarily be conflated with well-being³. Thus, according to these two teams of researchers, it can be said with some certainty that “living well” does not necessarily involve a preoccupation with pleasure.
The eudaimonic perspective maintains that an individual’s well-being is tied to living well, and actualizing their own potential.
More specification as to how one may live their best life comes from author Alan S. Waterman, and his discussion on the research conducted by Kennon M. Sheldon. Waterson’s text includes his own research, as well as findings from tens of other researchers, all of whom were concerned with understanding well-being, and learning how it might be improved. And whilst the included research findings all carry implications for how individuals can improve their well-being (those of you studying psychology may find the chapter discussing the importance of Self-Determination Theory particularly reminiscent), I believe those shared by Waterman himself and Sheldon are especially interesting. Put simply, both Waterman and Sheldon discuss the idea of the “true self”, presented in eudaimonic philosophy as a “daimon”⁴. The daimon represents all the potentialities that constitute an individual’s life, and the actualization of those potentials represents the greatest fulfillment of living that individual is capable of, leading them to a state of eudaimonia⁴. And whilst some of the potentialities encompassed by the daimon are shared by all of humanity (Waterman and Sheldon believe that there exist some universal potentials that are created by our shared, human nature), it is critical to note that some potentials are unique to specific individuals themselves⁴.
The actualization of potentials represents the greatest fulfillment of living an individual is capable of, leading them to a state of eudaimonia.
Equally important is the authors’ note that the process by which individuals recognize the subjective dimensions of their own daimons is not always straightforward; rather, it requires the individual to reflect on a number of considerations⁴. Are the actions associated with actualizing these individual potentialities ones that the individual agrees with? Are they intrinsically motivated to pursue them? Are the individuals acting with a sense of autonomy, authenticity, and meaningfulness? As I wrote previously, “living well” is not as clearly defined as many of us may have liked.
The process by which individuals recognize the subjective dimensions of their own daimons is not always straightforward.
Fortunately, recent positive psychology literature has operationalized eudaimonia as having six specific components: (1) meaning, purpose, and direction (purpose in life); (2) living in accord with one’s personal convictions (autonomy); (3) leveraging personal talents and potential (personal growth); (4) management of life situations (environmental mastery); (5) depth of connection with significant others (positive relationships), and (6) knowledge and acceptance of oneself (self-acceptance).⁵
All of this may have sounded somewhat dense, so I’ll attempt to elucidate what I have written by using a personal example. If I may be frank, I do not think I have ever lived in a eudaimonic state. This is not to say that I am clinically depressed, but after researching and learning about this core concept, I have begun to understand why some aspects of my life have never seemed to provide me with the sense of fulfillment they perhaps should have.
Take my academics, for example. Whilst it might be true that I do not attend the “best” or most reputed academic institutions on the planet (such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or M.I.T.), McGill University is far from nondescript, and I am proud to say that I am one of its attendants. Considering the fact that my family has a long history of relatives attending and graduating from McGill, as well as the fact it has been so influential for the field of psychology (Brenda Milner, the founder of neuropsychology, attended McGill herself as an undergrad), I should have been ecstatic upon receiving my letter of acceptance. I should have been equally happy with the dramatic increase in my GPA over the last few years, rising from a modest 2.5 to a personally satisfactory 3.6.
But when I reflect on what I have accomplished thus far, I find that I am not thriving. Rather, I feel only an overwhelming sense of relief; relief that I would not stand out as the only family member who did not attend McGill, or as the family member who had the lowest GPA.
And I believe the reason why I fail to experience feelings of elation is because I failed to internalize the virtues that Aristotle believed was necessary for eudaimonia. True, it may be said that I needed to exercise some virtues in order to make the progress I have enjoyed; without the virtues of courage (being persistent, even in the face of adversity), temperance (exercising good self-control), or wisdom (being curious, and having a love for learning), one cannot expect to make it very far in academia. But where the problem lies is in the fact that I was never autonomously motivated to embody these virtues; rather, I was driven to express them out of a fear of failure or rejection. The reason why I was so persistent in my pursuit of performing better in my courses, and acquiring a higher GPA, wasn’t because I inherently valued the virtue of temperance; it was out of the fear of forever being the Nimijean that never quite met the mark. Whilst I was embodying the virtues described by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, I never autonomously intended to embody them.
This shortcoming is in stark contrast to the potentialities I actualized in my main passion, playing video games. Here, when I reflect on the potentialities of my “daimon”, I find that I satisfy many of the personal dimensions that partly constitute my true self. Virtually everything I do in video games is autonomous, and intrinsically motivated; the game-modes I select, the characters I play as, the strategies I employ, and the items I make use of are all things I want to do myself. Nothing forces me, either implicitly or explicitly, to behave the way I do in the games I play. I interpret my behaviour in video games as meaningful and authentic, because I find them inherently valuable. They provide me with a sense of entertainment and inspiration that no other medium can compare with.
And it may be said that my behaviour with relation to video games accords both with the virtues, and with the intent to act virtuously. When I become engrossed in a game, and want to learn more about its world, its characters, and its narrative, I embody the virtue of wisdom; or when a game presents me with particularly beautiful characteristics (either as its artwork, its soundtrack, or the core gameplay loop itself), I embody the virtue of transcendence in appreciating them. Video games also foster the virtue of justice; a majority of the most popular games these days are team-based, thus necessitating teamwork, and as with most other things in life, deference is given to the most experienced/accomplished players. Thus, the more time you spend improving in a video game, the more likely others are to defer to your opinions, helping you develop a sense of leadership.
By this point, you have probably gleaned that living in eudaimonia is far more complicated than what we might have initially assumed, whilst remaining just as obscure as it sounds. As such, developing effective strategies that promote eudaimonia can be somewhat difficult. However, based on my personal anecdotes and limited research on the topic, here are some general tips I’d recommend to anyone wanting to embody eudaimonia:
1. Wherever possible, act autonomously. Research in other psychological fields (namely motivation psychology) can give credence to the idea that behaving in ways we want to, and because we want to, can have a number of positive consequences. So, wherever possible — whether it concerns what kind of profession you adopt later in life, or what kind of character you want to play as in a video game — try to inject a little bit of “you” in the things you do.
Behaving in ways we want to can have a number of positive consequences.
2. Reflect on the virtues you embody during the activities/behaviours you aren’t intrinsically motivated to do. This piece of advice may somewhat undermine my previous strategy, so allow me to explain. If you’ll recall, I previously mentioned how performing well academically meant very little to me with regards to my personal happiness/fulfillment. However, what I failed to mention earlier was my belief that the virtues I embodied (wisdom, temperance, or courage) during that activity prevented me from experiencing a worsened mental state. This is to say that although I didn’t intrinsically care about temperance in my academics (i.e., without the risk of stigma, I otherwise wouldn’t have tried as hard), I could nonetheless take pride and reassurance in the knowledge that I COULD exercise that virtue. So the next time you engage in an activity you otherwise wouldn’t do, remind yourself of the virtues you may be embodying in doing that activity; it might just provide you with enough mental strength to succeed in that potential.
Reflect on the virtues you embody when you aren’t intrinsically motivated.
3. Don’t hesitate to engage in activities that increase your sense of meaning and purpose in life. As alluded to earlier, experiences that foster a greater sense of connectedness to a greater whole, for example through volunteering, community activities, spirituality, or religion, have also been associated with eudaimonic well-being.⁵ Martin Seligman for example — considered the father of positive psychology — often describes three possible ways of living one’s life: the pleasant life, which focuses on pleasure and immediate gratification (hedonia); the good life, which focuses on engaging in satisfying activities that bring about a flow state; and the meaningful life, which focuses on meaning and purpose in life through connecting to something bigger than oneself (you guessed it, eudaimonia!).⁶ And this idea is supported by empirical findings. Researchers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman conducted a study that examined which of these three approaches to happiness was the most conducive to long term happiness. The researchers found that the individuals who scored highest on all three of these dimensions simultaneously reported the greatest life satisfaction out of all participants⁷. Understandably, some readers might find these results rather intuitive; how could you not be the happiest if you score the highest on three different dimensions of happiness? But I believe the real significance of this study, and the reason why it was included in this blog, is that it demonstrates how long-term, authentic happiness cannot be constrained to a single lifestyle. In order to be eudaimonic, individuals must live a balanced lifestyle of engagement, hedonism, and eudaimonism.
Experiences that foster a greater sense of connectedness to a greater whole have also been associated with eudaimonic well-being.
Happiness, like every emotion, is a very complex idea. Many of us may assume that it is discrete, self-contained and categorical; that if we crossed one last hurdle, played just a few more games, or met one more milestone, then we would be happy. But as philosophers and psychologists alike have demonstrated, the complexity of happiness is matched only by the number of approaches we can use to acquire it. If I could distill this article into a single phrase of advice, it would be this: try to live a virtuous and meaningful life, see the value in things you don’t personally care about, engage fully with those things you are passionate about, and don’t forget to indulge in a bit of hedonia. If this blog has communicated anything, it’s that happiness is the fulcrum between hedonism and eudaimonia; the happiest life is the most balanced life.
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- Chappell, T. (2013). Eudaimonia, Happiness, and the Redemption of Unhappiness. Philosophical Topics, 41(1), 27–52. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5840/philtopics20134112
- Schueller, S. (2013). Understanding our best: Eudaimonia’s growing influence in psychology. Quality of Life Research, 22(10), 2661–2662. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11136-013-0426-5
- Ryan, R. M, & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well Being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–16. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141
- Waterman, S. A, Sheldon, M. K. (2013). The Best Within Us: Positive Psychology Perspectives on Eudaimonia. Print, 99–118.
- Ryff, C. D. (2014). Psychological well-being revisited: Advances in the science and practice of eudaimonia. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 83(1), 10–28. https://doi.org/10.1159/000353263
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: The Free Press.
- Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 24–41. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-004-1278-z