We all know them (and if you don’t know them, maybe you are them). Always pushing for the next good thing to bring about happiness and contentment. For a couple of days at least. Your neighbour, two doors down, who loves nothing more than sharing their latest gadget in the garden, aside from the fact that they already have multiple such gadgets that do a perfectly good job that you’ve been privy to previewing in the past. Or your co-worker, who can’t resist waltzing around the office all week showcasing the 3 colourways she bought in that sold out top, even though she can only wear one at a time anyway. You get the idea, some people are pros at treating themselves to a little hedonic happiness, generally via over-spending money on things they think will make them feel better, or maybe eating pleasurable foods that are satisfying short-term but the negative long term effects outweigh these. Yet, they will do it. Why? In this article I’ll delve into what hedonic wellbeing is, whether it’s a good or bad thing, and what the alternative is – eudemonic wellbeing. As always, I will include references at the end to the published works of professionals who are expert in this field.
Positive psychology has uncovered a lot about happiness and it continues to do so. Thus far, it considers the necessity of both hedonic and eudemonic wellbeing to be present in order for us to have genuine authentic happiness or wellbeing (1). Hedonic wellbeing is concerned with life satisfaction, positive affect and negative affect (2). More specifically, optimising positive affect and minimising negative affect. Sounds good, right? The key to understanding wellbeing overall is in remembering that hedonic wellbeing tends to be associated with immediate pleasure and short-term satisfaction. Think of sitting down to eat a box of chocolates; so pleasurable at the time, but fast forward to feeling ill an hour later or feeling the effects of the overconsumption the next day when the sugar crash sets in. The hedonic master only sees what’s in front of them right now. “You want to buy that jacket? Buy it.” It doesn’t consider the fact that if you buy it you will go into your overdraft and that will have a negative knock-on effect further down the line. Think of the hedonic master as the stereotypical YOLO millennial (I’m not targeting anyone in particular here I’m just trying to make the information understandable and relatable to today’s society).
In contrast, eudemonic wellbeing is the marathon runner who sees the long-term implications and paces themselves to give themselves the best opportunity to achieve meaning in life, continued personal growth and contribute to society (3). Eudemonic masters are concerned with psychological and social wellbeing and the determination to persist for future pleasure or rewards rather than immediate (2). Think of the eudemonic master as a “short-term pain for long-term gain” believer.
So, which is better?
In short, a mixture of both is ideal. Furthermore, neither of these are “bad” if you are genuinely happy in your life. And, if you are genuinely happy in your life research suggests that you more than likely have a mixture of both types of wellbeing. The trouble might start when you find yourself on a hedonic treadmill. What I mean by this is you start to constantly chase a boost of happiness that lasts for a short period of time before you return to your base level (pre boost of happiness), and this cycle continues. It is also known as hedonic adaptation because no matter what boost of happiness you receive you will adapt back to your baseline. It’s similar to the tale we sometimes tell ourselves that starts with “I’ll be happy when I get/have…“.
A question I had in mind when starting this article was “Why can’t we stay happy?”. We do stay happy at our baseline of happiness (which is individual to everyone), but if we experience a boost in happiness as a result of pleasure, or a drop in happiness as a result of a negative experience, it is short-term and we return to our baseline. Eating a box of chocolates tonight won’t bring long-term happiness or wellbeing because the pleasure only lasts for the period of time you’re eating them. Similarly, treating ourselves to a brand new car will only have short-term positive effects because from the moment you own that car it is depreciating in value. In a years time you probably won’t feel the same happiness about it as the day you bought it.
Should we trade in our hedonic treadmill for a eudemonic version?
We should all certainly research the benefits of eudemonic wellbeing and then see how you can adapt a more eudemonic approach to fit your life. Personally, my wellbeing is much more focused on eudemonic. Purpose and meaning in life is hugely important to me and I constantly strive for long-term reward. I set a long-term goal and I will remain disciplined to achieve it. The happiness I get from working towards a long-term pursuit means so much more to me than a short-term reward. But that is not to say this is the correct way to live. I’m sure my focus does result in me not living so much in the present and maybe missing out on day to day pleasures. It is a balancing act and once you’re aware of where your happiness truly lies (short-term hedonic or long-term eudemonic) you can then figure out how best to approach your overall wellbeing. For me, I must prioritise my long-term goals and purposes while also trying to include some hedonic-based pleasures to a lesser extent. It is totally individual and likely to change throughout life, depending on your circumstances.
Is it true that the more we have the more we want?
One reason for constantly wanting more (aside from pleasure-driven hedonism) is lack of appreciation for what we already have. How is it possible to feel like you have enough if you aren’t grateful for what you already have? This idea of taking things for granted is hedonic adaptation at its finest. While this doesn’t answer the question in full, it is enough to answer it partly in relation to the topic of hedonic wellbeing.
Thank you so much for reading this far! I hadn’t expected this article to be so long but it really is a huge topic and therefore difficult to narrow down without sacrificing an unbiased portrayal. I would of course love to hear your thoughts or opinions, either in the comments below or on Instagram.
- Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000) Positive psychology: an introduction, American Psychologist, 55(1): 5-14
- Joshanloo, M., Jovanovic, V. & Park, J. (2020). Differential Relationships of Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being with Self-Control and Long-Term Orientation. Japenese Psychological Association, 63(1), pp47-57.
- Ryff, C. D. (2018). Well-being with soul: Science in pursuit of human potential. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 242– 248.