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Latest edits: Thursday, 14 February 2013, 11:03 AM (Ruth FULTON); Wednesday, 13 February 2013, 11:06 PM (Ruth FULTON); Wednesday, 13 February 2013, 10:56 PM (Ruth FULTON); full history

Is Doing Good, Good For You?


"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it."

- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Would you rather give money to someone on the street or spend it on new clothes?

While spending money on yourself might make you happier for the moment, keep on reading to find out why the first option might make you happier in the long-run...


Historical Influences

Current Standpoints and Relevant Theories

Eudaimonic and Hedonic Theories of Well-being

Clinical Benefits

Practising Eudaimonia

Criticisms and Limitations


Practical Exercises


The pursuit of optimal psychological wellbeing in life is one of the main concerns within the field of positive psychology. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) pointed out that most psychological research over the past century has largely been focused on psychopathology with little emphasis on the improvement of happiness and wellbeing, and the various pathways through which one can attain these ends. As a result much research over the past decade has focused on these aspects of human life and in particular that of wellbeing. Within positive psychology there are two opposing philosophical traditions regarding wellbeing: eudaimonia and hedonia. The hedonic perspective suggests that the central pathway to happiness is through the maximisation of one's pleasurable moments. These ends can be achieved through a range of behaviours such as seeking physical pleasures and comforts or engaging in enjoyable social interactions. In contrast the eudaimonic perspective proposes that in order to attain a sense of well-being, one must live a life of virtue and actualise one's potential. Examples of eudaimonia are exercising virtues (e.g. as being kind to others) and acting to the best of one's abilities and maximising one's potential. (Henderson & Knight, 2012)

The separation of these approaches and theories lie within their historical origins and therefore are traditionally considered competing theories. However recent empirical research has demonstrated that the separation of hedonia and eudaimonia might be unnecessary as both appear to contribute to well-being in different ways (Huta & Ryan, 2009). Nevertheless the hedonic-eudaimonic separation is continually debated (Kashdan et al., 2008).

New York Subway Hero

Historically the contention between eudaimonia & hedonia can be traced back to several prominent philosophers. The hedonic perspective can be traced back to the likes of Aristippus, Epicurus, Bentham, Locke, and Hobbes. With Aristotle, Plato and Zeno of Citium advocating eudaimonia as the central route to well-being.

The hedonic philosophers believed in the pursuit of happiness through experiences of pleasure, carefreeness and enjoyment. Traditionally these advocates equated happiness and well-being with the positive emotional states associated with the satisfaction of desire and therefore often associated good and bad with pleasure and pain respectively. Furthermore a subjective perspective was often considered the best course for determining once successful attainment of happiness and well-being (i.e. the individual in question is in the best position to determine their circumstance).

On the other hand eudaimonic philosophers such as Aristotle believed hedonism to be vulgar and that living a hedonic lifestyle caused people to become slaves of their desires. However he did suggest that a side effect of eudaimonic action could be hedonic pleasure. Which would suggest he was not against hedonistic pleasure per se, but instead denigrated the pursuit of pleasure for pleasures sake. According to his writings, he firmly believed that acting true to oneself, living a life of contemplation and virtue were the true pathways to well-being. His approach has largely been considered objective by judging whether an individual's life is good as opposed to using subjective reports of whether the individual believes his/her life is good. This highlights some concern over the hedonic approach as some of the hedonic lifestyles and behaviours can be reprehensible and therefore the individual might not be in a position to determine whether they are happy (e.g. seeking pleasure through the use of drugs). In summation, eudaimonic philosophers were more concerned with why someone is happy and not if they were happy (Henderson & Knight, 2012).

In the pursuit of studying well-being, psychologists have integrated the views of these philosophical perspectives in an attempt to empirically study the routes to happiness and well-being. In particular the eudaimonic focus on meaning in life and engaging in meaningful pursuits. The first noteworthy integration can be traced back to Viktor Frankl's (1963) and his view that in order for people to function best they must attain a sense of meaning and purpose in life. His view of meaning in life and its importance in attaining optimal levels of well-being are very similar to the view advocated by Aristotle. Since Frankl's postulations there has gradually been an increase on the focus of meaning in life and well-being (Stillman et al., 2010).

*A 4:22 minute video of Viktor Frankl giving a lecture in 1972 on the meaning of life (accessed from TED):
A comprehensive review on the origins and integration of these perspectives into psychological research can be found in Henderson & Knight (2012).

Policeman Gives Shoes to Homeless Man

Several theories exist to explain humans' eudaimonic well being and altruistic tendencies, a few of which are outlined below. Those who subscribe to Self-Determination Theory (SDT) identify three psychological needs of relatedness, autonomy and competence as the requirements for eudaimonic well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The proponents of Psychological Well-Being Theory have argued that there are six constructs and high levels of these constructs indicate eudaimonic well being: relatedness, autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, and environmental mastery (Ryff & Singer, 1998). While they articulate different constructs as being important, both of these theories imply that there are specific feelings or conditions that result in eudaimonic well being.

Using biological history of the human species, Evolutionary Theory provides an explanation for the altruistic nature of humans. 10,000 years ago, human beings lived in small co-dependent groups in which there was very little power difference between members. In order to survive, they had to help one another. Therefore only those who performed acts of altruism survived. Acting prosocially within one’s group resulted in victory over other groups and therefore ensured survival (Van-Vugt 2006). Early egalitarian societies had similar selfless tendencies. Altruism was practiced as a social norm as opposed to a voluntary act (Post 2005).

In 1964, W.D. Hamilton coined a prominent approach to altruism: Kin Selection Theory. According to this theory, when individuals make sacrifices for others who share their genes, they are “promoting their own genetic future” (Van-Vugt, p.243). Humans have a tendency to perform an altruistic act for those who are genetically closest to them. Other types of likeness with the doer (such as physical, cultural or geographical) can cause an individual to be more altruistic to the similar person than a stranger (Van-Vugt 2006). Expansions on this theory by Alexander Field (2004) indicate that interactions between non-kin have no altruistic character at all.

One standpoint on non-kin social interaction is Social Exchange Theory which suggests that benevolent actions between individuals are always done in expectation of a future reciprocal act. Within groups, there is a similar expectation. By performing altruistic acts, individuals portray a positive image of their own group. This benefits the group and therefore the individual in future interactions (Van-Vugt 2006).

The combination of nature and nurture is key to understanding human development and behaviour and the ideas put forward through Cultural Diffusion Theory and Social Learning Theory help to explain this interaction. Cultural Diffusion Theory suggests that cultural experience can overpower the mechanisms of genetics and that therefore genetic evolution can be driven by the cultural traits that individuals develop (Jellal 2002). This directly implies the importance of the actions that children observe throughout their childhood and adolescence. According to Social Learning Theory, children learn by watching others. Altruistic behaviours happen in response to social behaviours present in their environment (Eisenberg 1982). All individuals, adults and children alike, act prosocially due to a combination of their observed environment, the material and social rewards and punishments they receive and the internalized self reward (Batson 2003).

Customers in a Starbucks Drive Thru Pay it Forward

Well-being has generally been studied in relation to eudaimonic and hedonic perspectives, two distinct yet overlapping theoretical accounts with roots in philosophy (Ryan & Deci, 2001; Kashdan & Steger, 2007). Hedonic accounts of well-being emphasise the importance of pleasure and happiness and argue that well-being entails attainment of pleasure or positive affect and avoidance of pain or negative affect (Ryan & Deci, 2001; Kahneman et al, 1999; Kashdan, Diener & King, 2008). The eudaimonic approach however, argues that well-being consists of more than just subjective happiness and emphasises the importance of partaking in intrinsically meaningful activities so one can grow and reach their full potential, so how meaningful one feels their life is, in addition to virtuous living and doing good by others is important in defining well-being from the eudaimonic perspective (Steger, Kashdan, Oishi, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2001; Waterman, 1993; McMahan, Renken, 2011).

Behaviours that are illustrative of the eudaimonic perspective include altruistic acts, volunteering, helping those in need, developing healthy relationships and persevering to obtain an important and personal goal despite facing difficulties. Hedonic behaviours include individuals buying material goods for themselves, having sex just for pleasure with a lack of emotional intimacy, getting drunk and taking drugs (Steger, Kashdan & Oishi, 2008). As hedonic activities are centred on obtaining momentary pleasure for oneself and eudaimonic activities focus on developing one's resources to fulfil their potential, eudaimonic behaviours are associated more with lasting well-being whereas the less meaningful hedonistic behaviours only tend to sustain well-being within an individual for a short period of time (Steger, Kashdan & Oishi, 2008; Oishi, Schimmack, & Diener, 2001).

Although there is some debate in regards to the distinctiveness of the two perspectives and as to whether one route leads to greater well-being over the other, with some academics arguing that both routes lead to greater well-being than either acting singularly, research has tended to favour the argument that eudaimonic behaviours are associated with greater and lasting well-being. Steger, Kashdan and Oishi (2008), who measured well-being by assessing self perceived positive affect, meaning in life and satisfaction with life, found that individuals who engaged in eudaimonc activities reported greater well-being on a daily level and a global level. Hedonic activities however, were found to be unrelated, on both a daily and global level, to well-being. This research therefore suggests that those who partake in eudaimonic activities and do well by themselves and others report that they have more meaningful and satisfying lives. Research has also found that altruism in particular, a form of eudaimonic activity, is associated with greater well-being with studies showing associations with altruism and greater meaning in life, life and marital adjustment and less hopelessness and depression (Zarski & Bubenzer, 1982; Crandall, 1984; Mozdzierz et al, 1986; Markowski & Greenwood, 1884; Miller et al 1986; Crandall, 1975).

So, by engaging in eudaimonic behaviours i.e. acts of altruism, one is likely to feel that their life is meaningful and has purpose. This has positive implications for one's well-being and psychological functioning with research highlighting positive associations between meaning in life and happiness, and also with life satisfaction (Debats et al. 1993; Steger et al, 2008). Meaning in life has also been found to be negatively associated with depression, anxiety, substance use and negative affect (Debats et al. 1993; Harlow et al. 1986; Chamberlain & Zika, 1988) . Therefore for positive psychological functioning, to have meaning in one’s life is important.

Pictures To Restore Your Faith in Humanity


As has been described above, there is a strong interconnection between altruism, eudaimonia and well-being. However, to go beyond theoretical explanations of these concepts and put them into a more applicable context, it is important to look at specific, measurable clinical benefits. Altruism, as one specific form of eudaimonic behaviour is linked to a few specific clinical benefits, while the more general concepts of eudaimonia and meaning in life have been associated with mental well-being beyond the absence of illness.

Psychological Health Benefits

It has been found that altruism has a positive effect on psychological health (Ryan, Deci, 2001). Altruism is seen as intrinsically beneficial, as it activates the same brain areas which are found active when receiving rewards. Altruistic behaviour can be experienced as pleasant and calming (Rilling et al, 2002).

Furthermore, altruism can have positive effects on specific psychological disorders, for example on stress related disorders (Lucs, 1988). Altruistic behaviours have also been found to reduce anxiety levels and depression (Rilling et al, 2002). Hormones and neuropeptides released by altruistic behaviours might be the cause of these positive effects on mental health, as they can lessen stress and anxiety levels (Brown et al, 2009).

Physical Health Benefits

Altruism can have positive effects on physical health as well as psychological well-being. The quality and extent of the social network an individual lives in, influence their immune and autonomous systems (Kok and Fredrickson, 2010). Being altruistic influences the social network and has therefore indirect effects on the immune and autonomous system. Effects of altruism on mortality have been found in a longitudinal study (Brown et al, 2003). Individuals who reported to regularly engage in instrumental support for others showed significantly reduced mortality. Giving support seemed to play a bigger role than receiving support. Receiving support did not show statistical significance after giving support was taken into account.

Mental Well-Being – Beyond the Absence of Illness

Research has shown that psychological well-being (i.e. overall satisfaction and positive feelings) was significantly lower amongst existentially indifferent individuals compared to those who experience their lives as meaningful. Existential indifference is defined as experiencing low meaningfulness in life, which is not associated with crises of meaning. While perceived meaning in life enhanced well-being, mental health (i.e. anxiety and depression) was not affected (Schnell, 2010). Other research has shown different effects however, where meaning in life was negatively associated with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse (Debats et al., 1993).

These differences in results are likely due to the association between the concepts of altruism and meaning in life. Altruism has been shown to have positive effects on mental health and can also enhance meaning in life. Therefore it is unsurprising that some studies find associations between meaning in life and enhanced mental health. The above are missing definitions of meaning in life, why it remains unclear if altruism was controlled for.

Research agrees that meaning in life seems to have a positive effect on mental well-being. This suggests that while the absence of a crisis in meaningfulness might be enough to ensure mental health, meaningfulness in life is needed to advance mental health to mental well-being. This links to the general aim of positive psychology, which is finding ways to not only ensure essential health and keep individuals from suffering, but to promote something more, which is described as happiness.

These studies show that altruism, as a specific form of eudaimonia, can have very concrete effects on health, from reduced anxiety levels to reduced mortality. Experienced meaning in life can enhance psychological health beyond the absence of illness, to mental well-being and happiness.

Altruism - not just limited to humans?

Altruistic plants

As this page has described, Eudaimonia, well-being and altruism all connect in the positive influence they have on our lives. Altruism is the behavioural manifestation of eudaimonia and this in turn cultivates our well-being. How can we put this into practice?

Intrinsic Values

Eudaimonia has been described as pursuing intrinsic values and conducting one’s life separately from outside influences (Ryan, Huta and Deci, 2008). This contrasts with hedonistic lifestyles, which is the pursuit of material gains. Hedonistic people have been shown to consume more and to leave a larger environmental footprint (Brown and Kasser, 2005). Does this in turn mean that if we live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle we will automatically live a more eudaimonic lifestyle? It certainly seems to promote eudaimonia.

Social Behaviour and Altruism

It has been shown that those pursuing a eudaimonic lifestyle, with more intrinsic goals are more prone to social interests, and have more prosocial concerns (McHoskey, 1999; Waterman, 1981). Those who display altruistic behaviours (i.e. acts of helping others) promote greater well-being, health and longevity of life; there is a correlation between well-being, happiness and emotional and behavioural compassion (Post, 2005), so why doesn’t everyone help one other, all the time?

Despite the positive aspects of helping one another, there are also some negatives. People can often get overwhelmed with the task they have pledged to carry out for another, and if this occurs they do not benefit from helping (Post, 2005). Therefore to put Altruism into practice, it is essential that some thinking goes into the cost of helping before the act is carried out. There appears to be a somewhat contradictory element of selfishness necessary in altruism.


It is not enough just to help; we have to be good at helping. This is in direct connection with the concept of Flow. Flow is defined as the experience of carrying out a task with full concentration, in an effortless manner and where one’s skills match the challenge at hand (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). When tasks that promote flow occur, we experience a greater level of well-being and positive affect (Rogatko, 2009). Therefore, we must match our level of skill to the challenge we face.

Factors out-with our control

Age also effects altruism. Older people often have stronger values of helping but are unable to implement them (Midlarsky and Kahana, 2007). When they do however, they often outperform younger people in prosocial activities.

Family environment also has a large effect on valuing eudaimonia. If our psychological needs are met, we have a maternal environment with some autonomy and warmth and the promotion of less material gains, children will often be found to carry out more community participation and have better mental health and well-being (Kasser et al., 1995).

Men and women also benefit differently from altruism. Both men and women had better mental health when they felt a stronger “Community Connection” but women have been found to experience better health benefits and higher coping mechanisms for pain when they live altruistically (Schwarz et al., 2012)

A Formula for Practicing Eudaimonia?

In order to practice eudaimonia efficiently, we must focus on intrinsic values, let go of material gains, carry out altruistic behaviours, but only those that match our skill level, carry out these behaviours voluntarily, free from outside influences and rely on a certain amount of luck, where age, family and gender is concerned. This could involve

  • volunteering in an area of proficiency
  • helping a neighbour with their errands at the same time as running your own
  • promoting environmentally friendly living
  • playing sport as part of the team (contributing to the bigger picture)
  • complimenting someone without looking for anything in return

Meaning in Life - a combination of Eudaimonia an Hedonism?

The methodologies employed seem to be the main point of criticism in studies of eudaimonia and of wellbeing in general. More recently published papers do seem to address a number of previous criticisms however to allow more powerful conclusions to be drawn, there are further areas which still require attention.

A recent paper by Henderson & Knight (2012) reviewed a number of studies published regarding eudaimonia, commenting on the type of methodologies used. They mention a paper by Huta & Ryan (2010) which responded to previous criticisms in a number of ways. Firstly, they considered eudaimonia and hedonism as both interacting and separate concepts, something a lot of research has failed to do. They also used a high number of wellbeing outcome measures, allowing more in depth and reliable conclusions to be drawn about eudaimonia, hedonism and a wide range of other ‘flourishing’ factors. Huta & Ryan (2010) also employed the experience-sampling method, which involves asking subjects to note their emotions at the actual time they feel these emotions and not at a later time when memories are not as accurate. Steger, Kashdan & Oishi (2008) had earlier pointed out that reflecting on actual behaviours is likely to be more accurate than reflecting on emotions or feelings and so while there is always the possibility that self-report measures like the ones employed by Huta &Ryan (2010) are subject to bias from the individual, using experience-sampling appears to control for this to at least some degree.

While it is good that research is acknowledging and responding to previous criticisms, there are further methodological issues to be addressed. Della Fave, Brdar, Freire, Vella-Brodrick & Wissing (2011) make the point that studies looking at eudaimonia often draw conclusions which are not practically relevant for individuals; they state that the ‘full life’ can be achieved by living in both a eudaimonic and hedonistic way which is vague and not readily applicable. Suggesting behaviours individuals can engage in to achieve such a life would be more helpful – in the case of eudaimonia this may involve behaving in a more altruistic manner. In addition, there is no consistent definition of eudaimonia within the literature, making it difficult to generalise results. It is also evident that both eudaimonia and hedonism are inconsistently measured from study to study, again making it difficult to draw wider conclusions in this area. Henderson & Knight (2012) suggest that more practical conclusions could be reached if methodologies are further refined in a variety of ways.

Firstly, more in-depth behavioural analysis would strengthen the validity of conclusions. Della Fave et al. (2011) state that while studies in this area often need to be self-report, it does mean results are susceptible to the social desirability bias as well as recall error. Thus as well as self-report measures, observation and reports from friends and family of subjects could be conducted. In theory this may allow studies to be less subjective; however in practice may be difficult to monitor, time-consuming and still subject to bias. Henderson & Knight (2012) also comment that while it is generally accepted that living in both a hedonistic and eudaimonic way leads to the ‘full life’, it is yet to be concluded whether there are optimal levels of either or whether one is significantly better in certain situations.

A final area in which criticism lies is regarding the homogeneity of subjects. Steger et al. (2008) refer to previous research which has found culture to influence wellbeing factors. In particular the contrast between individualistic and collectivistic cultures in their approach to eudaimonic and hedonistic behaviours is something which has not been taken into account. Carrying out research with different cultural groups would allow any apparent differences to be seen, enhancing the area further.

It is clear that the main criticism in this area is the methodologies employed and while there are still a number of ways in which they can be improved, it is encouraging that recent research has taken account of previous limitations and criticisms. Hopefully future research will continue to do the same.

Altruism and eudaimonia have a long linked history but have also been more recently researched as separate concepts. Several theories have been linked with both concepts and all approaches look at altruism and eudamonia through different lenses, indicating that this area of research is broad and evergrowing. Research on eudaimonic beahviours highlight that engaging in these behaviours, in comparison to hedonistic behaviours, brings about greater well-being and meaning in life. Clinical research has indicated that there are psychological and physical health benefits to performing acts of altriusm. However, practical applications of eudaimonia and altruism have found a sensitive balance is necessary in producing well-being, and living a hedonic lifestyle or carrying out too many altruistic behaviours can be detrimental to well being and physical health. Research has been proactive at responding to previous criticisms, however, other factors such as more in depth behavioural analysis and cultural issues still remain unaddressed. In summation, research on eudaimonia, altruism and well-being has made important contributions to the area of positive psychology and more research can only enhance our knowledge and happiness further.

As discussed earlier meaning in life is important for positive psychological functioning and is associated with greater well-being so why not try this practical exercise to see if if you feel your life is meaningful and to see if you search to obtain meaning in your life.

Do you feel your life is meaningful?

Please take a moment to think about what makes your life and existence feel important and significant to you. Please respond to the following statements as truthfully and accurately as you can, and also please remember that these are very subjective questions and that there are no right or wrong answers. Please answer according to the scale below:

Absolutely Untrue: 1

Mostly Untrue: 2

Somewhat Untrue: 3

Can’t Say True or False: 4

Somewhat True: 5

Mostly True: 6

Absolutely True: 7

_____1. I understand my life’s meaning.

_____2. I am looking for something that makes my life feel meaningful.

_____3. I am always looking to find my life’s purpose.

_____4. My life has a clear sense of purpose.

_____5. I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful.

_____6. I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.

_____7. I am always searching for something that makes my life feel significant.

_____8. I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life.

_____9. My life has no clear purpose.

_____10. I am searching for meaning in my life.


Item 9 is reverse scored

Items 1, 4, 5, 6, & 9 make up the Presence of Meaning subscale

Items 2, 3, 7, 8, & 10 make up the Search for Meaning subscale

Scoring is kept continuous.

Presence of meaning has been found to be associated with eudaimonic beahviours and the search for meaning has been linked to hedonistic behaviours, so if you find you have scored more highly on the search for meaning items try engaging more in eudaimonic behaviours and see if it affects your well-being and psychological functioning.

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