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Altruism and Eudaimonia: Can We Live Happily Ever After?

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.

Chinese Proverb

From bearded Greek philosophers to Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, people have wondered how they can improve their own well-being. Popular culture suggests that hedonic pleasure-seeking is the key; however, positive psychology has found that eudaimonic self-development and altruism may be the best way to improve your own well-being. This article will examine the role of altruism and self-improvement in happiness.

This article covers the development of psychological theories of eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours, beginning with their ancient roots in Greek philosophy, through the development of humanistic psychology in the 1960s-70s and increased interest in the human ability to achieve one's potential, up to present-day theories of psychological well-being. Current research offers divided findings; while some experiments have found that eudaimonic behaviours produce longer-lasting improvements to well-being than hedonic behaviours, it seems that both eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours contribute to well-being in distinct but overlapping fashions.

We go on to discuss three key papers which, taken together, offer a useful overview of this area of positive psychology. A brief analysis of common methodological issues in the area is presented, and some typical unsupported claims are noted. Finally, a brief discussion of clinical applications of this research and relevant exercises to improve one's own well-being are presented, and future directions for research (including modifications to existing methods to improve validity of studies) are suggested.

In conclusion, we find that there is limited evidence for the full-life hypothesis (that both eudaimonic and hedonic acts are needed to achieve optimal well-being), but that the theoretical and methodological concerns described prevent current research from being regarded as conclusive.


Old cultural connection

History of eudaimonia in psychology

Current theory and evidence

Three introductory papers

Critique of current research

Unsupported claims

Clinical applications

DIY exercises to increase your wellbeing

Future directions for research

Recommended extra reading


Old Cultural Connection

Socrates (469 BC–399 BC)

Socrates describes eudaimonism as the attaining of well-being through virtue. For Socrates this meant being a good person in terms of self-control, wisdom and courage. He proposed that eudaimonic well-being was connected to having a healthy soul and not about material possessions or mere pleasures in life. Most importantly, virtues were the key to a healthy soul and so to attaining a eudaimonic life.

He also points out that eudaimonia can only be achieved by humans who have conscious thoughts and actions; in the time of the Greeks this would be important as it was believed that the Gods had no interest in non-humans (

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Aristotle can be thought of as the father of eudaimonia. He built upon the ideas of Socrates and Plato in his writings in Nicomachean Ethics, claiming that pleasure and virtue are necessary to achieve the most fulfilling life possible. Aristotle believed that merely feeling good was not sufficient enough to achieve eudaimonia; “cultivating high degrees of virtue” was more important (Bauer et al. 2008, p83). The idea of purely feeling good related more to the idea of hedonic well-being, carrying out actions that are intended solely for individual pleasure.

The only way to achieve eudaimonia, therefore, was to “live in accordance with the daimon or ‘true self’” (Waterman 1993, p678). A 'daimon' is one's unique potential; Aristotle believed that everything has a telos (purpose) and the way to attain eudaimonia was to carry out your telos to the best of your ability (Jost & Jost 2009). It was from telos that Aristotle thought people attained virtues, as they adopted the best ones that enabled them to carry out their purpose. Those who fulfilled their purpose in life and lived virtuously achieved eudaimonia.

Interestingly, Aristotle also believed that external factors like wealth, beauty and friendship also play a factor in eudaimonia. If someone is ugly or poor or has little companionship they are less likely to achieve a sense of eudaimonic well-being!

Hedonism: Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)

Hedonic well-being is the opposite of eudaimonia, and primarily focuses on pleasure rather than virtue. The belief is that we are purely motivated in our daily lives by either gaining pleasure or reducing pain ( Where eudaimonia is a far more social concept, hedonic well-being is purely individualistic (Bauer et al, 2008). Hedonic well-being refers to how happy one is with one's own life. The teachings of Epicurus propose that a tranquil life can be achieved through mere everyday pleasures, although overindulgence in them should be avoided. Most importantly for Epicurus, a life of well-being was more about the net gain of pleasure where the increase in pleasure outweighs the increase in pain ( This contrasts with more modern ideas of hedonism, that seeking pleasure is the only true goal in life.


The idea of eudaimonia taught by the school of Stoicism in Athens, which was founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334 BC – 262 BC), incorporates many of the ideas of Socrates, Aristotle and even Epicurus. The guiding principle is that the “happy life is the one which is most pleasant” (, while virtue is still a necessity to achieve eudaimonia. However, the idea of virtue can be seen as more of a Christian belief. Virtue for Zeno comprises living by morals and, most importantly, rejecting and overcoming vices. The school of Stoicism also taught that the external factors believed by Aristotle to have an impact (e.g. wealth, health and beauty) do not play a role in eudaimonic well-being.

Extra references for eudaimonia in philosophy:

History of Eudaimonia in Positive Psychology

Eudaimonia as a psychological concept is still in its infancy, and there are constant adaptations to what is regarded as the most accurate measurable framework of “optimum” or “meaningful” living. Models of eudaimonic well-being have developed from humanistic self-actualizing theory to Seligman’s (2002) establishment of the positive psychology movement.

What are eudaimonic and hedonic acts?

Eudaimonia and hedonism can be defined by acts we engage in or a type of state we aim to achieve. The hedonic approach defines well being as happiness through feeling good, and has been interpreted as the occurrence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect (Kahneman 1999). A purely pleasurable activity such as eating whilst still full embodies the instant gratification of hedonic behaviours (Ryan & Deci 2006).

Conversely, the eudaimonic approach has been defined as happiness through living well: living a complete and full life, realising and actualising ones potential. For example, maintaining relationships and acts of altruism are more likely to aid the perception that life is satisfying and meaningful (Steger et al., 2008).

The development of eudaimonia within psychology

Eudaimonic and hedonic theories originated in philosophy and religion, while eudaimonia as a psychological concept arguably stemmed from humanistic psychologists such as Maslow (1968), Jung (1933) and Rogers (1962). The concept has also recently been adapted into Martin Seligman’s models in positive psychology.

The first references to eudaimonia in psychology arose with the move away from psychoanalysis and behaviourism in the 1960s and 1970s. The resulting humanistic psychology emphasised the idea of individuals making choices through free will and controlling their own well-being. For instance, Carl Rogers argued for the “actualising tendency”, the human drive for expansion, development and personal growth (Rogers 1978). Since, various psychologists have attempted to develop a measurable framework for eudaimonia and well-being.

Theories of well being are typically one-sided, focusing on the hedonic priniciple of maximisation of pleasure resulting in maximisation of happiness (Steger et al., 2008). Diener (1987) exemplified this with the Subjective Well Being (SWB) model, where individuals evaluate the degree to which they feel “wellness” on a purely positive or negative scale. However, these models omit the eudaimonic concept of self-actualisation, growth and meaning.

Measurements incorporating eudaimonic concepts do exist, however, and two measurements have become primarily associated with eudaimonic well-being:

  • Ryff’s (1989) Psychological Well Being assesses competency in six constructs: relatedness, autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, and environmental mastery.

  • Ryan & Deci’s (2001) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) emphasises three essential needs: autonomy (control of one's actions), relatedness (the need for closeness to others) and competence (confidence in oneself and one's actions). These can be applied universally. Greater fulfilment of these needs is linked to better well-being and functioning.

Ryff (1989) uses her six constructs to define well being, where as Ryan & Deci (2001) use their three constructs as a means of maintaining well being.

Seligman (2002), the originator of Positive Psychology has also incorporated the concept of eudaimonia within his Authentic Happiness Model. It fits in his framework of the "Meaningful Life” where people use their strengths towards a larger cause and engage in a state of flow or “acting with total involvement” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Do we need other people to lead meaningful lives?

Despite the variety of psychological models which attempt to represent the concepts of eudaimonic well being, there is still debate as to which factors contribute to eudaimonia and meaning in life. Aristotle claimed that one becomes good by doing good, and this element of altruism is also echoed throughout the eudaimonic models (Cahn 1990); for example, altruistic behavior, expressing gratitude or listening to others satisfy the need for relatedness expressed by Ryff (1989) and Ryan and Deci (2001).

It has therefore been commonly proposed that social interaction is the main basis for the perception of life satisfaction, and hence meaning in life and eudaimonia is to some degree dependent on others.

Current Theory and Evidence

Can well-being be influenced by environmental changes?

Positive affectivity (the tendency to feel cheerful, happy and enthusiastic) has a substantial genetic component (e.g. Linley and Joseph, 2004). However, environmental influences are also thought to play a role. For example, greater job satisfaction has been found to have a positive effect, as have various exercises derived by positive psychologists such as mindfulness-based meditation (Carr, 2004; Headey and Wearing, 1991; Seligman, 2002a).

Seligman (2002a) argues that while various exercises can improve a person’s positive affectivity within their naturally achievable range, a more fundamental change to the way we live is required to improve well-being and happiness. He states that there are three orientations to living life and seeking happiness:

  • Hedonic/pleasant: the focus is on maximising positive feelings such as physical and cognitive pleasure, and minimising negative feelings such as pain and unhappiness.
  • Good/engaged: the focus is on learning one’s strengths and building a life (in work and relationships) in which you can regularly and productively use these strengths in an engaged, flow-like state (see Csikszentmihalyi (1990)).
  • Eudaimonic/meaningful: again, this involves learning and using one’s strengths in a flow-like state. However, not all flow-like states involve meaningful activity. In this case, one’s strengths are used to serve a larger concept than oneself.

The distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic activities is unclear, though common definitions describe hedonic acts as selfish and pleasure-focused, while eudaimonic actions refer to acts of self-development and altruistic behaviour (Huta and Ryan, 2005).

Can well-being be influenced by eudaimonic or hedonic activities?

The eudaimonic life has been found by some (e.g. Steger, Kashdan and Oishi, 2008) to produce greater short-term well-being than hedonic behaviours. This study is described under key papers. Similarly, Vella-Brodrick, Park and Peterson (2009) found in their mass US/Australia survey that meaning and engagement (eudaimonic as opposed to hedonic elements) explained a great deal of variance in subjective well-being, and hence that the eudaimonic orientation to happiness was key for well-being.

However, this is not to claim that hedonic orientation cannot increase subjective well-being. Peterson, Park and Seligman (2005) found that greater investment in any of Seligman’s (2002a) three approaches to seeking happiness is associated with greater life satisfaction. However, falling in with the above findings, the hedonic approach was associated with lower well-being than the engaged and meaningful approaches.

The full-life hypothesis

Hedonic and eudaimonic activities are not mutually exclusive, however, and some researchers have argued that both are necessary to attain the highest possible well-being (Peterson et al., 2005). This is Seligman’s (2002) full-life hypothesis, in which he argues that neglecting eudaimonic or hedonic aspects of life result in an empty life and poorer well-being. Hence, people who engage regularly in both types of activity should have higher well-being.

A key supporting study for the full-life hypothesis was produced by Huta and Ryan (2010), who studied the effect of hedonic and eudaimonic motivations for actions. One of their four experiments required participants to complete a daily survey regarding their motivations and actions during that day, and their overall sense of well-being. It was found that people whose lives contained a higher degree of both eudaimonic and hedonic actions scored higher on well-being variables than those whose lives were lower in both types of pursuit, suggesting that behaviour with eudaimonic and hedonic motivations both contribute to well-being.

Huta and Ryan (2010) also found evidence that eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours affect different components of happiness. Eudaimonic behaviours were associated with a sense of meaning (perhaps unsurprisingly), while hedonic behaviours were linked with carefreeness. This suggested that both eudaimonic and hedonic factors influence well-being in different but overlapping ways. This study is described in more detail under the key papers section.

Cultural variation


With regards to altruism and eudaimonia across cultures there has been contrasting results. To begin with, it has been shown widely that there seems to be an altruistic motivation involved in volunteering. (Bruns et al, 2006). In turn, various studies have shown that volunteering can have a positive effect on wellbeing. It has been found in the US that older individuals in particular gain more from volunteering suggesting it gives them a greater purpose in life. (Dolan et al, 2008; Thoits, Hewitt, 2001). This supports previous findings by Krause et al (1999) that found elderly Japanese individuals who help out others more often were more likely to report very positively with regards to their health.

Furthermore, Meier and Stutzer in using data from Eastern Germany after the fall of the German Democratic Republic, which lead to a substantial decrease in volunteering, found that more volunteering (weekly) lead to increase in life satisfaction and well being. These findings seem to be consistent across various cultures although, there has been some opposing evidence. Haller and Hadler (2006) found volunteering to have no positive effects on happiness and life satisfaction across 34 countries.

Despite this contrasting minority view, Plagnol and Huppert (2010) found that there was a relationship between volunteering and well being across several countries. (Dolan, et al, 2008; Plagnol, Huppert, 2010). However, it is suggested that it is dependant on a number of issues including historical background. For example, in previously Soviet ruled Eastern European countries, people were forced or strongly encouraged to volunteer. This seems to have had an effect on volunteering rate as it is as low as 7% in some of these countries. Suggesting that individuals in these countries do not possess the same intrinsic motivation to volunteer that people in the US or UK possess. It was shown, that the European countries that volunteer least often are found to have the highest levels of well being. It is suggested that those who will gain from volunteering the most in these counties are the individuals who are volunteering most frequently. (Plagnol, Huppert, 2010).


A recent study spanning across several countries including Australia, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and South Africa, examined implicit views of happiness and meaningfulness in life. It was found that across these across these countries, family and interpersonal relationships were most significantly related to a sense of happiness and meaning in life. Some differences were found, for example, although spirituality and religion was found to be one of the least important factors contributing to a meaningful life on average across the countries, South Africans placed a very high importance on spirituality, second only to family. (Fave et al, 2010, Coetzee, 2010). It is evident from the above research that there has been a movement towards understanding cross cultural differences in relation to eudaimonia and altruism. However, there is a need for further comparisons to fully understand any differences that do occur across cultures.

It appears from the above that both hedonic and eudaimonic behaviours contribute to well-being, though eudaimonic activities may contribute more. Thus far, the extent which either contributes is not particularly clear. The cultural issues also require further exploration.

Further empirical evidence regarding the effect of eudaimonic and hedonic acts is presented in our three key papers, below.

Three Key Papers

We provide brief descriptions of the main papers we have selected below.

"Hedonia and eudaimonia each made unique contributions to well-being."

Huta and Ryan (2010)

Paper 1: Huta and Ryan (2010)

Highly recommended, the one key paper to read!

In this paper, the authors carried out four studies of hedonically and eudaimonically motivated behaviours and their contribution to well-being. Note the use of motives rather than behaviours; other studies pre-classify behaviours into eudaimonic or hedonic (e.g. Steger et al., 2008) without accounting for subjective individual motives, and this represents a considerable improvement on such flawed designs. We consider this to be one of the strongest examples of scientific investigation of eudaimonia.

Study One

A correlational study with several intentions, most important of which (for this article) was to test whether hedonic and eudaimonic behaviours form distinct groups.

300 undergraduates rated their typical actions on various eudaimonic and hedonic motives, and on the level of meaning they typically assigned to their actions and experiences.

The distinction between eudaimonic and hedonic factors was confirmed. Additionally, tests of well-being demonstrated that participants who engaged in a “full life” (Seligman, 2002a) reported greater positive affect than purely eudaimonic or hedonic participants, reinforcing the argument that both are required for optimal well-being.

Study Two

Another correlational study which essentially replicated the first study, with some modifications to the well-being scales used. Similar results were obtained.

Study Three

An experience-sampling study with 102 undergraduate participants. Participants’ well-being and eudaimonic/hedonic motivations were sampled seven times daily for a week, examining:

  • Between-participants, whether those engaging in many hedonic/eudaimonic pursuits experienced particular related forms of well-being.
  • Within-participants, whether individual eudaimonically or hedonically motivated activities were accompanied by particular aspects of well-being.

Time of sample and day of beginning the study was varied to avoid confounds due to weekly patterns of activities and mood (feeling more unhappy on a Monday, for example).

Between-person findings were that people who are highly eudaimonic also tend to be highly hedonic, though the two potential motives tend to be in opposition at any specific point in time. Hedonic motives related more to carefreeness and life satisfaction than eudaimonia, while eudaimonia related more to elevating experience.

Within-person findings also showed that hedonically motivated pursuits were linked to greater carefreeness, greater positive affect and lower negative affect, while eudaimonic pursuits were typically not correlated with these feelings but were correlated with a sense of meaning which hedonia did not produce.

Study Four

An intervention experiment (of particular interest; this is a long paper, so if you only read one of the four studies, read this one).

The intention was to confirm the causal relations between hedonic/eudaimonic activities and well-being. 114 undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to add hedonic or eudaimonic activities to their lives for ten days. They could choose the type of activity (with guidance from the experimenters), but must engage in three different types of activity over the 10 days of the intervention. A survey of activities carried out and well-being experienced was completed at the end of each day.

Well-being pre-experiment, during the last seven days of the intervention and at three-month follow-up were compared, to enable examination of short- and long-term experiments.

Hedonia was again confirmed as linked to carefreeness and eudaimonia to sense of meaning. The full life was clearly associated with greater well-being (e.g. in the form of vitality) compared to eudaimonic or hedonic lives alone.

Hedonic behaviours were associated with increased well-being during the intervention, but only eudaimonic behaviours were linked to increased well-being (in vitality but not life satisfaction) and reduced negative affect at 3-month follow-up.

It was also found that participants in the eudaimonic condition decreased in hedonic motivation during the intervention (and vice versa for the hedonic condition). The authors argue that this supports the concept of two different modes of functioning.

Overall findings

The overall paper findings were that hedonically motivated behaviours related more to positive affect and carefreeness, while eudaimonic pursuits related more to a sense of meaning and connection. Both types of pursuit produced well-being benefits such as benefits to vitality, though these were more apparent from hedonic pursuits at short-term follow-up and more apparent from eudaimonic activities at three-month follow-up. This suggests a difference in permanency of influences from these activities, and that eudaimonic actions may have a delayed effect.

The authors concluded that hedonic and eudaimonic activities occupy overlapping but separate niches within the overarching umbrella of well-being. It was suggested that a combination of the two would produce the highest level of well-being.

"Eudaimonic behaviours had consistently stronger relations to well-being than hedonic behaviours."

Steger et al. (2008)

Paper 2: Steger et al. (2008)

The authors carried out two daily diary studies to assess whether reported engagement with eudaimonic behaviours was related to well-being, and whether any relation was stronger than the relationship between hedonic behaviours and well-being. Eudaimonic and hedonic activities were pre-classified by the authors (which represents a potential flaw, as noted by Huta and Ryan (2010)).

Study One

Study duration was three weeks. 65 undergraduates completed questionnaires 22 days apart, as well as a daily log.

The relationships between life satisfaction, meaning in life and positive/negative affect, and hedonic/eudaimonic daily behaviours were explored. The main finding was that the more an individual reported engaging in eudaimonic activities, the greater their well-being (measured by life satisfaction, meaning in life and positive affect). Additionally, next-day well-being was linked to the previous day’s eudaimonic behaviours, suggesting a possible delayed causal link. No such link was found with hedonic behaviours.

Study Two

Study duration was four weeks. Some modifications to the questionnaire materials were made, broadening the sample of behaviours regarded as hedonic and modifying some questions to become more socially acceptable.

This study included 45 undergraduate participants, who completed two sets of questionnaires 28 days apart. They also completed an online daily log.

Findings from the first study were replicated; again, eudaimonic behaviours were found to relate to more sense of meaning in life, life satisfaction and positive affect.

Overall findings

Hedonic behaviour was less consistently linked to well-being, while eudaimonic pursuits were associated with elevated well-being and greater positive affect, on both overall and daily analysis. Eudaimonic activity may also have carry-over positive effects detectable on the following day, particularly on the sense of meaning in life.

"Three of five? interventions lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms."

Seligman et al. (2005)

Paper 3: Seligman et al. (2005)

This article evaluates recent progress in the area of Positive Psychology. The new Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) edition is explained and compared to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), and various interventions are analysed regarding whether they can make people happier in the long term. Finally, a study was carried out consisting of random assignment to 5 happiness interventions which promote self happiness.


The study duration was 6 months, during which the 577 adult participants (42% male and 58% female) were periodically assessed on a questionnaire incorporating measures of depression (the Beck Depression Inventory) and happiness (a new measure, the Steen Happiness Index (SHI)). The items on the SHI reflect the three orientations to happiness (the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life). The Internet was used to recruit participants, deliver the intervention and collect data.

The participants filled out the assessment questionnaire before moving onto the exercises. Five happiness exercises and one placebo control exercise were used; each exercise was accessed via the Internet and a week was given for completion. One of the five exercises focused on building gratitude, two focused on increasing awareness of what is most positive about oneself, and two focused on identifying one's own strengths of character. Participants were instructed to return to the Web site to complete follow-up questionnaires after completing their assigned exercise.

Overall Findings

Two of the exercises — using signature strengths in a new way and three good things — increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months. Another exercise, the gratitude visit, caused large positive changes for one month. The two other exercises and the placebo control created positive but short-term effects on happiness and depressive symptoms.

Importantly, the extent to which participants actively continued their allocated exercise on their own and beyond the prescribed one-week period influenced the long-term benefits. This suggests that such exercises can have a significant impact on well-being in the long-term.

Problems with Research

Research into eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours (and their impact on well-being) is flawed in a number of ways, which it is important to bear in mind when assessing evidence.


There are difficulties in defining eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours. For example, Ryff (1989)'s model of Psychological Well-Being includes eudaimonic factors such as purpose in life and personal growth, but also more potentially hedonic aspects such as rewarding relationships with others. However, large degrees of overlap between these components have led some to argue that behaviours cannot be separated into hedonic and eudaimonic groups so easily (Abbott et al., 2006; Triado, Villar, Sole and Celdran, 2007). There may, therefore, be issues with construct validity when differentiating between hedonic and eudaimonic behaviours.

Additionally, the term “eudaimonia” itself is not well-established; while Seligman (2002a) describes unconscious flow in eudaimonic states, other researchers emphasise mindfulness and awareness (clearly contradicting the unconscious nature of flow) alongside more ‘traditional’ conceptions such as autonomy and self-development (Ryan, Huta and Deci, 2008). When such a key concept is ill-defined, it follows that research may be methodologically dubious and that generalisations or comparisons with other research may be difficult.

Inherent differences between hedonic and eudaimonic acts

Such problems with definitions may be related to the difficulties inherent in defining activities as either eudaimonic or hedonic. Some activities may be both; for instance, some people enjoy exercise or learning to play a musical instrument, but it is also for purposes of self-improvement (Huta, 2007). Similarly, altruism (a behaviour which is unanimously considered to be eudaimonic) produces psychological rewards and so is at least partially hedonic in nature (Kashdan, Biswas-Diener and King, 2008). Even the flow-state claimed by Seligman (2002) to occur in the eudaimonic life could be interpreted as hedonically enjoyable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Hence, eudaimonic and hedonic acts may not necessarily be distinguishable; certainly this emphasises the importance of Huta and Ryan's (2010) focus on personal interpretations of acts rather than general classifications.

Questionable causal assumptions

A further problem arises with a possibly wrong causal assumption between mood and perceived meaning in life. Individuals with a very positive mood/affect are more likely to report having a much more meaningful life in comparison to those who do not have a positive mood (King et al, 2006). Therefore, the perceived meaning in certain activities may be mediated by mood, rather than the other way around (as is presumed). It may even be that some third variable is responsible for both perceived meaning and positive mood. Most studies rely on self-report and will struggle to address this theoretical issue; this is discussed further in the section on future directions for research.

Measures used in research

Steger et al. (2008) note that many studies of hedonic and eudaimonic behaviours utilise self-report mechanisms such as diaries or regular surveys, which may present problems with regard to social acceptability. Participants may be unwilling to report overly hedonic activities while exaggerating eudaimonic activities, skewing the reported pursuits in favour of eudaimonia and potentially biasing the results. Additionally, memory biases may mean that participants are simply unable to accurately report back, particularly in studies which require the participant to sum up an entire week (Huta and Ryan, 2010).

Based upon the above concerns, it is clear that there are substantial methodological and theoretical concerns regarding current research into hedonic and eudaimonic behaviours.

Unsupported Claims

Like many areas of positive psychology, the subject of eudaimonic and hedonic acts and their influence on well-being has attracted many unsupported claims. In this section, some of the more prominent wild claims will be briefly noted.

Wild Claim

Imagine a sadomasochist who comes to savor serial killing and derives great pleasure from it. Imagine a hit man who derives enormous gratification from stalking and slaying. Imagine a terrorist who, attached to al-Qaeda, flies a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center. Can these three people be said to have achieved the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, respectively...yes.” (Seligman, 2002).

Seligman asks whether a terrorist who has (arguably) been brainwashed into committing mass murder has lived a meaningful life. Seligman states that ‘yes’ this individual has achieved a meaningful life on the basis of his (Seligman's) purposed theory of eudaimonic happiness. This is clearly a bold, attention-grabbing statement. Seligman obviously does not condone such heinous actions, but does stand his ground with regards to his theory.

However, this statement is not backed up by supportive evidence and thus has no real scientific weight behind it. Despite existing evidence that individuals can achieve increased well-being through eudaimonic action, this can in no way can be reasonably compared or transferred to a terrorist committing a horrendous act of murder.

Research produced by Seligman and others with regards to eudaimonia and meaning is very positive. However, many argue it is over simplified and offers thoughts and ideas which are unjustifiable and non comparable with evidence ( Sundararajan, 2005). Certainly, this exaggerated claim regarding the application of positive psychological findings to extreme acts of violence is markedly unsupported.

Are the effects of eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours long-term?

One of the main assertions at the base of positive psychology as a whole is that of increasing well being and happiness with ‘lasting effect’. It has been shown in various studies that happiness and well-being is increased by living a eudaimonic lifestyle (e.g. Steger et al, 2008). Be that as it may, the question of whether these effects are lasting is continuously reiterated.

Seligman and others comment on the lack of importance placed upon positive psychology with regards to treating illness, stating that many mental health interventions merely decrease suffering (anxiety, symptoms) but do not aim to increase individuals’ overall happiness in the long term. Despite the amount of positive research suggesting significant short-term improvements on well-being, there is a lack of empirical longitudinal evidence for claims that a eudaimonic lifestyle leads to lasting well being.

There is a small amount of evidence that eudaimonic pursuits improve well-being at 3-month follow-up (Huta and Ryan, 2010), and that some exercises can improve well-being at 6-month follow-up (Seligman et al., 2005). However, this is very limited. Furthermore, a vast amount of research on the biological basis of happiness suggests there is a genetic element to well-being, showing it to be up to 80% heritable. It is consequently argued by some that well-being can only be boosted temporarily before returning to the set level (Linley and Joseph, 2004; Seligman, 2002a).

Implicit views

Implicit views of happiness and meaningful lives contradict the theories mentioned above. The outcome of most surveys, questionnaires and interviews tends to be very similar; some frequently mentioned factors which are claimed to make people happy are good weather, strong relationships and (the most mentioned) money. For example, a recent survey carried out by the BBC demonstrated exactly these results; winning the lottery, nice weater and having close family and friends were at the top of the list for increasing and maintaining happiness (

Clinical Applications

Many of us do not take the time to consider what makes us happy. While we tend to be conscious of short-term happiness such as socialising, achieving a goal or purchasing a much-wanted product,meaningoflife.6.jpeg long-term happiness (or 'happiness maintenance') is much more difficult to achieve. Two important concepts in this article regard whether altruistic actions give us a higher sense of pleasure in comparison to hedonic pleasures, and whether we can gain this meaningful happiness without having to engage with people in a social context.

Exploring the concept of a ‘Meaningful Life’ requires examination of how individuals obtain a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves. These larger concepts can be belief systems, social groups, traditions or organizations.

Character Strengths and Virtues - CSV (1994)

Seligman (1998; 2002) claims that ‘happiness derives from an execution of our signature strengths’, and together with Peterson he created the (CSV) ‘Character Strengths and Virtues’ (1994). The CSV is similar to the DSM in attempting to classify and identify psychological human traits using a theoretical framework. This supports the development of practical applications in positive psychology. In contrast to the DSM, the CSV focuses on what can go right as opposed to what can go wrong in life. The CSV identifies 6 core classes or virtues, which are comprised of 24 measurable character strengths and are organised in the following way:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation.
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality.
  3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence.
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership.
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control.
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality.

Positive Psychotherapy (PPT)

This is an example of the application of positive psychology in a clincal context. The core theoretical concept of Positive Psychotherapy is that increasing positive experiences and emotions is more beneficial to individuals than reducing dysfunctional cognitions and behaviour. Beck asserts that negative cognitions cause negative emotions, but Seligman argues that negative emotions cause negative cognitions (Seligman et al. American Psychologist, Nov. 2006). Hence, focusing on emotions rather than cognitions leads to improved overall well-being (according to Seligman).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive processes are our thoughts, ideas, mental images, beliefs and attitudes. Cognitive Therapy is based on the belief that distinct ways of thinking can initiate mental health problems. The therapist aims to identify any harmful thoughts that may be causing psychological disorders (anxiety, for example) and attempts to change the ways of thinking in the individual to prevent these ideas.

Taking a different approach, Behavioral Therapy aims to change destructive or harmful behaviors with techniques such as gradually exposing individuals to their fears (exposure therapy). For anxious individuals, this is done by teaching anxiety control and breathing/relaxation techniques.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a combination of cognitive and behavioural therapies. It has come into wide use in recent decades, as behaviour and thoughts are believed to interact on different levels depending on the condition. CBT is helpful for the treatment of a wide range of psychological disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sexual and relationship problems, anger, drug and alcohol abuse and many more conditions (Grazebrook et al, 2005).

Practical applications

There are many ways to promote positivity in life on a daily basis, from the simple task of writing a few paragraphs to say something good about yourself or write a thank you note, to patients receiving therapy for anxiety or depression to induce positive focus as opposed to negative.

According to Seligman et al. (2006), patients who are depressed or suffering from various other disorders can be treated by encouraging the following:

  • Increased positive emotion
  • Engaging more fully in life
  • Finding meaning in life

Another technique which is growing in popularity is mindfulness, a technique in positive psychology that originates from Buddhism. It encourages the acceptance of the present state of your life without judgement. There is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme which teaches people meditation and techniques to deal with stress or psychological disorders amongst other ailments. The programme consists of the following components:

  • An Orientation Session, before the training begins.
  • 8 weeks of two and a half sessions.
  • Mindful communication and dialogue within the group.
  • Daily mindfulness practice of 40-45 minutes.
  • All day long Mindfulness Retreat after week six.
  • Mindfulness course Manual with notes and CDs provided for support.

Mindfulness links

Further versions of applied positive psychology

Positive Psychology Activities are offered in various other forms including:


DIY Exercises to Increase Your Wellbeing

One activity per day to raise your well-being

Huta and Ryan (2010) showed that doing a daily eudaimonic or hedonic activity for ten days could have significant effects on well-being, even three months after finishing (see the key papers section for more information). Participant activities in their intervention study included:

Hedonic acivities:

  • Sleeping more.
  • Socialising.
  • Listening to music or watching a film/TV.
  • Shopping.
  • Eating sweets.
  • Being pampered (hair, nails...).
  • Reading.
  • Taking time to enjoy the scenery.

Eudaimonic activities:

  • Helping someone.
  • Cheering someone up.
  • Studying harder or finishing an assignmen early.
  • Eating better or exercising.
  • Having a meaningful discussion.
  • Counting their blessings.
  • Organising or tidying belongings.

Gratitude Letters

Writing a Gratitude Letter to someone who has helped or been kind to you, expressing exactly what they did and how this helped you, will bring about a feeling of thankfulness. Being thankful releases positive feelings for both yourself and the recipient, particularly if the letter is delivered in person and/or read in your presence.

Three good things in life

Write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. Where possible, provide a causal explanation for each good thing.

You at your best

Write about a time when you were at your best and reflect on the personal strengths you displayed in the story. Review the story once per day for a week, continuing to reflect on the strengths you have identified.

Using signature strengths in a new way

Take an inventory of your character strengths online at, which will provide you with individualized feedback about your top five (“signature”) strengths (Peterson et al., 2005a). Then try to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.

Meditation or Silent Time

This can be a really effective method of Life Reflection. Try to take the time to think about recent personal events and understand things that have happened to you over the course of the day. Being able to process daily happenings can allow for peace of mind.

Keep a diary

A Daily Positive Diary can boost your inner sense of well being, helping to remind you of the goodness in the day rather than remembering the things that annoyed us or prevented us from doing something. Negative events will seem less all-consuming when you can compare them to the positive events that you have experienced.

Future Directions for Research

We have identified five key areas which should be considered for future research.

A priori versus a posteriori classification of eudaimonic and hedonic activities

As noted in our main paper (Huta and Ryan, 2010), the majority of papers do not consider the influence of subjective interpretation by participants. We have already discussed this issue in our section on methodological concerns in existing research, which we feel must be taken into account in future work.

Essentially, most papers (e.g. Steger et al., 2008) pre-classify behaviours as eudaimonic (e.g. volunteering) or hedonic (e.g. over-eating). While this may be valid for hedonic activities - it is difficult to see how over-eating might serve a eudaimonic purpose - it is less clearly valid for apparently eudaimonic activities, due to the reasons previously discussed. Huta and Ryan (2010), however, examined the motivations and experience of the participant regarding actions, and retrospectively classified the actions as eudaimonic or hedonic based on this. This ensures a more valid distinction between eudaimonic and hedonic activities, since it uses the participant's subjective perceptions rather than imposing those of the experimenters on all participants. Therefore, we feel that this approach should be used wherever appropriate in future research.

Presumed direction of the causal relationship

This is a general concern in much research into this area, and one which requires additional care to be taken in methodological approaches. As noted above, individuals with greater positive mood/affect are more likely to report having a meaningful life than those with lower positive mood/affect (King et al., 2006). Many studies claim that more meaningful acts produce greater happiness; however, it may be that those who are initially happier regard their lives as more meaningful, and hence act in a more meaningful way in a self-fulfilling manner. This may contribute to maintaining greater happiness over time, which in turns improves the likelihood of further meaningful acts. This demonstrates that happier people might carry out more eudaimonic acts rather than those who carry out eudaimonic acts becoming happier.

Similarly, Huta and Ryan (2010) note that there might be a reversed causal link from well-being to eudaimonic and hedonic acts, on the ground that positive emotions may engender the type of awareness and desire for personal growth that typifies eudaimonic acts. This is known as Frederickson's (2001) broaden-and-build theory. Again, it emphasises the possibility that the supposed link between acts and well-being may incorporate a reverse element, or in fact not work in the presumed direction at all. This possibility clearly requires further examination, ideally through research constructed to separate the two possible relationships (well-being to acts/acts to well-being).

Differences in individualistic and collectivistic cultures

The neglected role of collectivist and individualistic societies has recently been highlighted in papers as an area of future research. (Deci & Ryan 2006) (Steger et al 2008). Many of the models based on eudaimonia and hedonism, such as Subjective Well Being or Self Determination Theory rely on values to define them. However, these values (such as autonomy or relatedness) are not globally appreciated as “good” to have and can therefore not be fairly applied to a sense of well being throughout cultures. Autonomy and relatedness may be important for well being in certain societies but are not necessarily endorsed as a value everywhere. Cultures that do not value these particular needs, may not support such qualities on a questionnaire even though those needs are essential for ones well being. Therefore, well being can appear subjective dependent on where you come from.

A second point raised is the fact that samples used within well being research are largely homogeneous (Steger et al 2008). This appears flawed as cultural differences have proven to influence well being variables. It has also been inferred that eudaimonic behaviours are somewhat collectivistic (other-oriented) where as hedonic behaviours are somewhat individualistic (self-oriented). Therefore future research should focus on balancing collectivistic and individualistic activity across eudaimonic and hedonic distinctions. Some collectivist cultures may perceive individualistic behaviours (hedonic or self oriented) as poor functioning amongst their society. This raises the concern of whether eudaimonic activities can be associated with well being throughout all cultures and consequentially whether it is even a valid measure.

Appropriateness of measures

It is important to note that the self-report measures used in research into these behaviours are not without limitations of their own; participants may submit incorrect or biased reports due to issues of memory or of social acceptability, for example. While Huta and Ryan (2010) suggest that peer ratings or behavioural measures might provide a source of data free of these concerns, they are unlikely to provide as full as report as self-report measures. However, we would recommend that further research considers combining such measures to develop as accurate an understanding of the participant's activities and responses as possible.

Appropriateness of participants

As noted by Huta and Ryan (2010), the majority of their participants were white, middle-class, female undergraduate Psychology students. This is usually considered sufficient to represent a generalisable sample in psychological research, provided that the sample is large enough. However, it is important to bear in mind that what improves well-being in a middle-class young female living in an individualistic culture may be very different to what improves well-being in an elderly male who lives in a collectivistic culture. We argue that these assumptions of generalisability about such a little-researched field cannot be presumed valid, and that future research should incorporate different subsets of the general population (different ages, races, occupations, socio-economic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, etc.).


The evidence regarding the effect of eudaimonic and hedonic activities on well-being is mixed. While some studies have found only an effect of eudaimonic activities, others have found that hedonic activities have an effect as well. However, any effect of hedonic behaviours is uncertain; while some research has found a lesser effect on the same scales as eudaimonic behaviours, other researchers have discovered that eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours have distinct but overlapping effects on well-being, influencing different areas of the overall well-being construct and producing optimal well-being when applied in combination. It may be that previous findings of a weaker effect of hedonic acts have examined an aspect of well-being which is more relevant to eudaimonic behaviours, so the latter two lines of research may not be mutually exclusive. However, further research is needed to clarify the roles of the two types of behaviours.

Additionally, it is uncertain whether the effects of either eudaimonic or hedonic behaviours are long-term. Despite the reasonably strong evidence that some ill-defined improvements in well-being can be brought about in the very short term, the long-term effects remain dubious. While eudaimonic behaviours are argued by some to produce improvements which last up to three months, the evidence for this argument is extremely limited at the time of writing and certainly cannot be considered definitive. This also requires further investigation.

There are also methodological and theoretical concerns regarding the research which has been carried out in the past; these are described above. It is key that these concerns are addressed in future research, since the validity and generalisability of findings are presently relatively poor.

Therefore, although there are encouraging suggestions from research that eudaimonic and hedonic activities may potentially improve well-being, there is little consensus on the degree or form of these effects. Given the interest in applying these findings (and positive psychology in general) to clinical and other scenarios, it is essential that these questions be addressed in clear, effective research which takes the methodological and theoretical concerns noted into account.

Recommended Extra Reading

These are some resources which might be helpful as a further introduction to the subject; some are informal but helpful articles, while others are formal scientific papers and books. The key papers from above are not noted, as these have already been discussed.

Resources have a note in red explaining why they might be helpful.

Begley, N. (undated). Article?. Psychological adoption and adaptation of eudaimonia. Positive Psychology UK. Retrieved November 21, 2010 from the World Wide Web:

Describes physiological and psychological aspects of eudaimonia. Also discusses the history of the concept in psychology. Some discussion of philosophical and religious viewpoints.

Boniwell, N. (undated) Article?. The concept of eudaimonic well-being. Positive Psychology UK. Retrieved November 21, 2010 from the World Wide Web:

Covers theories of eudaimonia. Offers a good introduction to concepts but no specific references to studies, only to big names in the field. Reasonable (if broad) starter reference.

Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology: the Science of Happiness and Human Strengths. New York; Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Very detailed; recommended if you are interested in in-depth study of Positive Psychology. Many useful chapters, not just for this topic.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: an introduction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 1-11.

Excellent introductory resource by two major figures in the discipline.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002a). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

Very well-known book by a leading researcher in positive psychology; highly recommended.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002b) Newsletter?. Pleasure, meaning and eudaimonia. Authentic Happiness. Retrieved November 15, 2010 from the World Wide Web:

Informal introduction to orientations to happiness. Good (but basic) coverage of Seligman’s position in his book Authentic Happiness (referenced above). A general but effective inntroduction to Seligman's arguments.


Abbott, R. A., Ploubidis, G. B., Huppert, F. A., Kuh, D., Wadsworth, M. E. J., & Croudace, T. J. (2006). Psychometric evaluation and predictive validity of Ryff’s psychological well-being items in a UK birth cohort sample of women. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 4, 76.

Bauer, J., McAdams?, D. and Pals, J.(2008) Narrative Identity and Eudaimonic Well-Being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 81 – 104 space

Begley, N. (undated). Article?. Psychological adoption and adaptation of eudaimonia. Positive Psychology UK. Retrieved November 21, 2010 from the World Wide Web:

Boniwell, N. (undated) Article?. The concept of eudaimonic well-being. Positive Psychology UK. Retrieved November 21, 2010 from the World Wide Web:

Burns D.J, Reid J.S, Toncar M, Fawcett J, (2006), Motivations To Volunteer: The Role of Altruism, International Review on Public and Non Profit Marketing, 3, (2), 79-91

Cahn, S. M. (1990). Classics of western philosophy (3rd ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett.

Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology: the Science of Happiness and Human Strengths. New York; Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience(HarperCollins?, New York).

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: an introduction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 1-11.

Diener, E. (1984) Subjective well-being, Psychological Bulletin 95, pp. 542–575

Dolan P, Peasgood T, White M, (2008), Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being, Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, 94-122

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-buil theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Fave A.d, Brdar I, Friere T, Vella-Brodrick D, Wissing M.P, (2010), The Eudaimonic and Hedonic Components of Happiness: Qualitative and Quantitative Findings, Social Indicators Research

Grazebrook, K., & Garland, A., Board of BABCP (2005) What are Cognitive and/or Behavioural Psychotherapies? A paper prepared for a UKCP/BACP mapping psychotherapy exercise.

Headey, B. & Wearing, A.J (1991) Subjective well-being: A stocks and flows framework. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.) Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective. Pergamon Press: Oxford.

Huta, V. (2007). Pursuing pleasure versus growth and excellence: links with different aspects of well-being. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 68(1-B), 649.

Huta, V., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). Pursuing pleasure or virtue: the differential and overlapping well-being benefits of hedonic and eudaimonic motives. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11, 735–762.

Jost, J., T. & Jost, L. (2009) Virtue ethics and the social psychology of character: Philosophical lesion from the person-situation debate. Journal of Research in Personality 43, 253-254

Jung, C.G. (1933) Modern Man in Search of a Soul (W.S. Dell and C.F.Baynes, translators) Harcourt, Brace and World, New York.

Kahneman D., Diener E. and Schwarz N. (eds) (1999) Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (Russell Sage Foundation, NewYork?).

Kashdan, T. B., Biswas-Diener, R., & King, L. A. (2008). Reconsidering happiness: the costs of distinguishing between hedonics and eudaimonia. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(4), 219-233.

King L.A, Hicks J.A, Knill J.L, Del Gaiso A.K, 2006, Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90 (1), 179-196

Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive Psychology in Practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Maslow, A. H. (1971) The further reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005a). Assessment of character strengths. In G. P. Koocher, J. C. Norcross, & S. S. Hill III (Eds.), Psychologists’ desk reference (2nd ed., pp. 93–98). New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005b). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: the full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25-41.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues A Handbook and Classification. Washington, D.C.: APA Press and Oxford University Press.

Plagnol A.C, Huppert F.A, (2010), Happy to Help? Exploring the Factors Associated with Variations in Rates of Volunteering Across Europe, Social Indicators Research, 97, (2), 157–176

Rogers, C.R. (1978) The formative tendency, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 18 (1), 23-26.

Rogers, C.R. (1962) The interpersonal relationship: The core of guidance Harvard Educational Review 32, pp. 416–429.

Ryan R.M. and E.L. Deci (2001) On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in S. Fiske (ed.), Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 52, 141–166

Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: a self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 139-170.

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069-1081.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002a). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002b) Newsletter?. Pleasure, meaning and eudaimonia. Authentic Happiness. Retrieved November 15, 2010 from the World Wide Web:

Seligman, M.E.P. (1998). Learned Optimism , New York: Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster).space

Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006) Positive Psychotherapy, American Psychologist, 61, 8, 774-788.

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions, American Psychologist, 60(5), July-August 2005, Pages

Steger, M. F., Kashdan, T. B., & Oishi, S. (2008). Being good by doing good: daily eudaimonic activity and well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(1), 22-42.

Sundararajan L , 2005, Happiness Donut: A Confucian Critique of Positive Psychology , Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 25, (1), 35-60.

Thoits P.A, Hewitt L.N, (2001), Volunteer work and well being, Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 42, 115-131

Triado, C., Villar, F., Sole, C., Celdran, M. (2007). Construct validity of Ryff’s Scale of Psychological Well-Being in Spanish older adults. Psychological Reports, 100(3), 1151-1164.

Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Three ways to be happy: pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90(2), 165-179.

Waterman, A., S. (1993) Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (Eudaimonia ) and Hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (4), 678-691.