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How to measure happiness: hedonia vs. eudaimonia

A lot of research assumes happiness is measured by comfort and material conditions. For Aristotle, it is about being the best we can be.
how to measure happiness
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Key Takeaways
  • Each of us will have our own understanding of the word "happiness." For Aristotle, it is either understood as being about pleasure (hedonia) or fulfillment (eudaimonia).
  • A lot of happiness research focuses on the social and national level. It examines the various conditions and comforts that are more likely to make a person happy.
  • But this assumes a more hedonic view of happiness. If we believe Aristotle, happiness is equally available to most humans, regardless of their socioeconomic conditions.

Being happy is nice. We all like being happy, particularly Pharrell Williams. It’s what makes us smile and motivates almost all of our actions. It’s the essential ingredient to a good time. No meal, movie, night out, or book can be called good without making you happy in some way.

But, what does that word even mean — “happy”? For a lot of people, happiness is the measure of a good life. It is what the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero called the “Summum bonum” — the greatest value of all. But how are we to measure happiness when it is such a slippery, variable, and undefinable term? Even if we agree that it is of great importance (if not the most important thing), how can we quantify and document it?

First, we must examine two different ways to understand happiness.

Hedonia and Eudaimonia

There is a philosophical and psychological debate between those who see happiness as being “hedonic” versus “eudaimonic” — that is, as pleasure versus fulfillment. It is something Aristotle and the subsequent “Eudaimonic schools” (like the Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans) took very seriously.

The ancient Greeks had a great many words for the types of happiness available. Hedonia was the term they reserved for what we would most likely call pleasure or simple happiness. It is the subjective state of feeling great. It is the emotional affect of laughing, enjoying a relaxing drink, or the frisson you get hearing the Star Wars theme tune in the cinema. (Or is that just me?) It’s a Michelin-starred steak, or it’s a KFC bucket. Hedonia is pleasure, and it’s really nice. It’s also pretty easy to measure happiness of this kind.

While English has various “happy” words like ecstatic, joyful, contented, overjoyed, or euphoric, it lacks a direct equivalent to eudaimonia. For Aristotle, eudaimonia is a full or flourishing life. It is one of moral excellence, duty, and virtue. It might involve or accompany pleasure, but it doesn’t seek it. Eudaimonic happiness means the thriving of the soul and doing what you were meant to do as a human. According to classicist and author, Edith Hall, a closer translation might be “felicity.” It is more a visceral, intense state of being (more than a “feeling” even) that is both caused by and motivates doing things well. It is much harder to measure happiness like this.

How to measure happiness

Now, we can start to see the problem with the idea of how to measure happiness. Our understanding of the word has a millennia-old debate, and it’s not going away soon. It is common for (even great) media outlets to cover which nations are “happiest” or “unhappiest.” Scientists often research the causes and consequences of happiness, and science journalists know their work will be popularly read. But, happiness is in many ways a Rorschach ink blot — you will imagine it differently compared to me, and subtly differently again to everyone else.

If a research study or questionnaire asks, “Are you happy?” how do you interpret that? Some of us will measure happiness as being hedonia (pleasure). But that is a temporary, fickle, and unreliable thing. Others will measure happiness as eudaimonic. They will frame it within a meaningful life, or as a life done well. After all, the most meaningful and “happy” days of our lives are often not all that pleasurable at the time. They are the ones in which we work ourselves silly, we overcome a challenge long bothering us, or we know we’ve been the best person we can be.

In other words, better questions might be: “Are you happy right now?” (which is measuring a more affective, hedonic state) and “Is your life happy?” (which is measuring a more holistic, eudaimonic thing).

How do others measure happiness?

The World Happiness Report is the go-to research body when it comes to happiness. It has been using various algorithms, data sets, and statistical analyses for more than 20 years to determine the happiest and unhappiest places on Earth. But how, exactly, do they measure happiness?

According to their site, they measure happiness by focusing on Gallup poll data for “six particular categories: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make your own life choices, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.” It is robust and professional and as close to an objective data set as you can get. Even though half of the categories (like freedom and internal and external corruption) are self-perception-based responses, their overall analysis holds water.

Essentially, the World Happiness Report measures happiness in economic and political terms. For them, happiness results from affluence, comfort, opportunity, freedom, justice, and support.

The happiness problem

One problem with trying to measure happiness in this way is that it views an affective and emotional state in terms of data. It turns into graphs and numbers what is a highly personal, and deeply subjective, state of existence. A second problem is that more appropriate data — which could come from in-depth psychological assessments of millions of people — is not practical or possible.

A third problem is that the six categories mentioned above arguably skew the definition of happiness too closely toward comfort and pleasure. They measure happiness more in terms of hedonia. But something is lost when we view happiness in this way. The deep, contented eudaimonic life that is born in virtue is part of the human condition. It pays no heed to borders, GDP, or infrastructure assets.

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If we believe Aristotle, happiness is when a person does the best they can, whatever their lot. It is when we fulfill our potential and excel in our own ways. Happiness is not having wide screen TVs or even good dental care; it’s in being kind, honest, and good. It is in working hard and improving ourselves and the world around us. On our death bed, we will not measure happiness in terms of pleasure had or comforts given. We will measure happiness by a job well done.

Happiness is so slippery a term because it is tailored to us all. It is adeptly playing the cards we are dealt and saying honestly, “I could have done no better.”

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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