What is happiness

I’ve been meaning to comment on this Wall Street Journal op-ed which argues that different types of happiness have different kinds of benefits and deficits. What we traditionally think of as happiness — the feeling we get after having sex, drinking a strong martini or killing one of our enemies — is referred to as hedonic happiness, e.g. related to hedonism. But there’s another type of happiness which I will let the article’s author describe.

“Eudaimonia” is a Greek word associated with Aristotle and often mistranslated as “happiness”—which has contributed to misunderstandings about what happiness is. Some experts say Aristotle meant “well-being” when he wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia by fulfilling their potential. Today, the goal of understanding happiness and well-being, beyond philosophical interest, is part of a broad inquiry into aging and why some people avoid early death and disease. Psychologists investigating eudaimonic versus hedonic types of happiness over the past five to 10 years have looked at each type’s unique effects on physical and psychological health.

To some degree this is stuff we’ve heard all our lives. Chasing short-term happiness by taking drugs, watching television, seeing heavy metal bands and banging as many chicks as possible does not lead to the contentment that comes with slowly pursuing long-term goals. And it makes intuitive sense. The ultimate hedonists: rock stars (and possibly actors) seem to have a high likelihood of being depressed and killing themselves, even though they’re living lives that seem very enviable. Meanwhile, little Chinese men who do tai chi and eat a bowl of rice a day quite contentedly live to 90. We may be getting at the biological reasons why.

Eudaimonic well-being “reduces the bite” of risk factors normally associated with disease like low education level, using biological measures, according to their recently published findings on a subset of study participants.

Participants with low education level and greater eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker of disease associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease, than those with lower eudaimonic well-being, even after taking hedonic well-being into account.

It’s a little unclear whether they’re taking into account the obvious factor that hedonists probably expose themselves to all sorts of things — drugs, booze, fatty foods — that might increase their health risks.

What most strikes me reading the article is the sense that, after 10,000 years, human society still doesn’t have a very good definition of what the term happiness even means. And much of the conversation about the topic probably includes a lot of people using the term in different ways.

4 Responses to “What is happiness”


  1. John Saleeby

    Happiness is for pussies.

  2. Wil

    That would be the hedonistic form of happiness.

  3. John Saleeby

    Happiness comes at the end of a long day of hard work!

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