Many conceptualisations have been proposed by professional thinkers from a broad range of disciplines in an attempt to define well-being. Despite this, there is little consensus amongst scholars on anyone philosophical definitions of well-being, nor is there a shared methodological approach to measure it. With the number of theories covered in academic literature, most illustrate well-being as revolving around two distinct perspectives that wields a pervasive influence on psychological functioning. The unpopular but influential perspective known as hedonism equates well-being with pleasure and how good an individual feels about their life. Alternatively, Aristotle’s approach to happiness, known as eudaimonism proposed that the greatest life was lived to its fullest potential or in accordance with one’s internal virtue.
Although most studies have found variances between the two constructs, many suggest that they might be more closely related than previously assumed. This literature review aims to evaluate the research surrounding the measures of well-being and to address the limitations to enable improvements to be made in future studies. The term ‘eudaimonia’ was first coined by Greek philosopher Aristotle who proposed that the greatest life was lived to its fullest potential, allowing one to fulfil their life purpose. Whilst pleasure is shown to be mostly positive, from a eudaimonic perspective it is not the goal to be pursued but is achieved as a by-product of the pursuit of virtue. In support of this perspective are studies that illustrate the association between physical pleasure and life satisfaction in the short term which has been significantly highlighted in the studies of Steger et al.
In the diary studies of assessing engagement in eudaimonic behaviours, it was concluded that the positive effects of eudaimonic-related activities during a single day were associated with subsequent reports of positive well-being over several days. Additionally, an underlying premise of the eudaimonic perspective is that individuals experience well-being while they are fulfilling their potential while contributing to the greater good. Ryff and Singer highlight this as they describe eudaimonia as involving goal-oriented and purposeful activities. The importance of meaning and purpose in optimal functioning also has been emphasized in an array of research and scholars have noted that work can provide purpose and meaning. Although other modern perspectives on eudaimonism have been proposed, such as the ‘Self-Determination theory’, one term that is often used synonymously with eudaimonism is psychological well-being, developed by Carol Ryff. Ryff’s proposition of well-being is widely used and consists of six core elements which contribute to an individual’s well-being.
These include self-acceptance which involves accepting and knowing oneself, positive relations with others, where one reflects on their ability to show affection and empathise, autonomy involving a sense of independence, environmental mastery, which is the capacity to manage one’s life and the surrounding world, the purpose of life, which is the belief that someone’s life is purposeful and personal growth, which is the development of personal potential. Notwithstanding, however, is the erroneous assumption that eudaimonism is inappropriate for science as it involves inherent moral judgements and elitism as it implies that eudaimonia is a state reserved for only a select few and that eudaimonic well-being was more objective, comprehensive and morally valid than subjective well-being. Comparably, Kashdan et al. also underline the particular concern surrounding the suggestion that eudaimonism was distinct from hedonism and suggested that findings suggesting that both were distinct could also be interpreted as evidence that they are part of the same construct.
Diverging from the holistic beliefs of eudaimonism, the hedonic viewpoint involves the maximisation of positive emotions and minimisation of negative emotions, associating well-being more with momentary enjoyment, relaxation and the individual’s subjective feeling of happiness. Although the hedonic point of view has been tested empirically through laboratory studies and has yielded supportive results, there is uncertainty about how such findings will generalise to everyday decisions. Many academic scholars see hedonism as an attractive principle; however, it is becoming more convenient to argue that it is a ‘vulgar ideal, making humans as slavish followers of desires’. As a philosophical concept with no clear method of measurement, researchers have attempted to redefine hedonism into an operational definition. Where the eudaimonic perspective has largely been replaced by psychological well-being in academic literature, hedonism saw a shift towards subjective well-being which is often used interchangeably with ‘happiness’.
Subjective well-being consists of three components: life satisfaction, the presence of positive affect, the presence of negative affect. As a concept, positive and negative affect bears similarities to the ancient ideas of pleasure and pain contributing to hedonic levels. Life satisfaction, defined as a global judgement of one’s life could intuitively be comparable to the overall hedonic level of an individual over their life as a whole, however, this is often be considered as a newer addition to hedonic well-being, and therefore not strictly a hedonic concept. Support for this perspective is evident in the studies of Steger, Kashdan & Oishi (2007) which show that people who report engaging in more eudaimonic behaviours feel their lives are more satisfying and meaningful, across global and daily levels of analysis. While self-report measures can be viewed as an appropriate method for assessing hedonic happiness, it is recognisable that it is susceptible to retrospective biases and a lack of insight.
More specifically, there is concern that hedonic happiness and satisfaction can result from reprehensible behaviour such as the use of illicit drugs and that positive reports may not be reflective of whether a life is well-lived. To a great extent, research has successfully documented the effects of eudaimonism and hedonism as distinctive perspectives, however, very little empirical research has examined the relative impact of both hedonic and eudaimonic approaches on well-being. Despite this contention, psychologists now appear to see the benefits of both hedonic and eudaimonic approaches, resulting in the emergence of integrated well-being conceptualisations. These theories agree that hedonism and eudaimonism should not be treated exclusively, but rather there should be flexibility in studying the interrelationships amongst the two constructs.
The first to propose integrated well-being were Seligman, Parks and Steen (2004) who proposed the Authentic Happiness theory, which suggested that the presence of positive emotions, meaning and engagement were indicative of well-being. Additionally, studies by Kashdan, Biswas-Diener & King (2008) also highlight the prevalence of overlap between the models of eudaimonic and hedonic well-being than what was believed in the original philosophical conceptualisations of these topics. This is mirrored in the studies of Ryan and Deci (2001) who have also adopted this perspective in proposing that well-being is better conceived as a ‘multidimensional phenomenon’ that incorporates aspects of both eudaimonic and hedonic conceptions as a means to comprehensively capture well-being. This illustrates that eudaimonism and hedonism, despite their differences, can operate in one person contemporaneously and results indicate that this interaction contributes to an increase of positive emotions.
This is further emphasised in research by Huta & Ryan (2009) who suggest that individuals are often engaged in both pursuits and a single action could involve both eudaimonic and hedonistic motives. In essence, research surrounding integrated well-being suggests that there is little reason to classify hedonic and eudaimonic happiness into mutually exclusive categories, as a combination of both pursuits increases positive outcomes than either does singlehandedly. Well-being is a complex subject which many find difficult to define. Many theories have been proposed on the nature of well-being yet, there is no unifying system that is able to solve these pertaining issues. The purpose of this literature review was to examine literature surrounding the complex framework of well-being as it is applied in social and behavioural sciences.
Comprehensible from the research reviewed, hedonism involves the experiences of pleasure and avoidance of pain, whereas eudaimonia encompasses the experiences of personal growth, purpose and social significance and that there is the significant conceptual overlap between the two perspectives. However, while both constructs are related both can also be distinguished from one another. If eudaimonism and hedonism are different conceptualizations of well-being, then each would explain unique variance in the outcomes. Current research supports hedonism and eudaimonism, as discussed above; however, a continuation of current research with consistent and strengthened methodologies that assesses the causal nature will help justify its use outside of laboratory practice. Furthermore, to advance and expand the knowledge on the concept of well-being, it is also recommended that well-being is studied cross-culturally as some factors such as independence may indicate poor acculturation amongst collectivist societies.