Feel-Good vs. Feel-Purpose: Hedonia and Eudaimonia as separate but connected Pathways to Happiness

Ever since graduating from the Penn MAPP program, I give a handful of presentations and keynotes on Positive Psychology each quarter. Since I´m an executive in a multinational corporation, I mostly get invited to talk to fellow businessmen, and the greater part of my talks addresses human resources, leadership, and organization culture topics. One of the charts I show early on in each and every presentation is this one:

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I deliberately show it early in the game in order to convey that Positive Psychology is not a sort of Happyology, that it´s not about wearing rose-colored glasses all the time. Yet, it also serves to clarify the consequences of different human resources and leadership behaviors and programs. One of the most important takeaways:

Hedonic and eudaimonic pathways both play a crucial role in order to keep employees fully engaged and productive – but most measures that foster hedonic experiences are rather short-lived and, perhaps even more important, easy to copy by competitors – whereas conditions that foster meaning an purpose are rather hard to replicate.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an exquisite book chapter by University of Ottawa researcher Veronika Huta which explains in detail the differences between hedonic and eudaimonic orientations in life (and work). She analyzed a multitude of definitions and conceptions on the differences of hedonia and eudaimonia from previous research and boiled them down to a comprehensible set of attributes. These are the most important takeaways.

Hedonia, in short, is about:

  • pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction;
  • and the absence of distress.

Eudaimonia is more complex in it´s nature, it´s about:

  • authenticity: clarifying one’s true self and deep values, staying connected with them, and acting in accord with them;
  • meaning: understanding a bigger picture, relating to it, and contributing to it. This may include broader aspects of one´s life or identity, a purpose, the long term, the community, society, even the entire ecosystem;
  • excellence: striving for higher quality and higher standards in one’s behavior, performance, accomplishments, and ethics;
  • personal growth: self-actualization, fulfilling one’s potential and pursuing personal goals; growth, seeking challenges; and maturing as a human being.

Other important attributes and distinctions:

Hedonia is associated with:

  • physical and emotional needs;
  • desire;
  • what feels good;
  • taking, for me, now;
  • ease;
  • rights;
  • pleasure;
  • self-nourishing and self-care; taking care of one’s own needs and desires, typically in the present or near future; reaching personal release and peace, replenishment; energy and joy.

Eudaimonia is associated with:

  • cognitive values and ideals
  • care;
  • what feels right;
  • giving, building, something broader, the long-term;
  • effort;
  • responsibilities;
  • elevation;
  • cultivating; giving of oneself, investing in a larger aspect of the self, a long-term project, or the surrounding word; quality, rightness, context, the welfare of others.

To close, it is important to say that both pathways to happiness are not mutually exclusive (in the strict sense). Meaningful experiences can certainly bring about pleasure – and taking care of ourselves can certainly add meaning to our lives. As such, we must also refrain from equating the pursuit of hedonia with shallowness. As the graphic at the top of the article illustrates, we need to grow on both dimensions in order to live a truly fulfilling life.

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Infographic: Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset

Now, I´m aware that this infographic (created by Nigel Holmes) has been around for a while – but then, there´s probably some 6,999,000,000 people on this planet who have not seen it as of yet – so I´m doing an important job here. 😉

The Growth Mindset – based on Carol Dweck

Growth Mindset

No Pain, no Gain? Think again! We are able to experience Post-Ecstatic Growth, Science says

Post Ex GrowthOriginally coined by German philosopher Nietzsche, the following quote has become a piece of common knowledge: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Most people have – at one point or another – made the experience that going through really tough times may render us stronger than before, and not shattered as one would initially expect. In psychology, this mechanism is labeled Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG; here´s an overview of the idea).

Some people might even claim that there is no gain without pain. Turns out, that this view may be wrong, or at least incomplete. In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Positive Psychology titled Gains without pains? Growth after positive events, Ann Marie Roepke, Ph.D. student at Penn´s Positive Psychology Center, presents evidence for what she calls Post-Ecstatic Growth, based on a survey among some 600 people. Basically, Roepke had people name the one experience in peoples lives that they remember as the most positive (e.g., the birth of a child). Then, she asked people to specify which category best characterized their positive event, based on Seligman´s PERMA framework and which positive emotions had been evoked by the event (e.g., in awe, inspired, uplifted, joyful, content, fascinated etc.). Additionally, she assessed the outcome of that event, for instance, feelings of personal growth or “doors opening up” for new possibilities in life.

In short, Roepke found clear evidence for the existence of Post-Ecstatic Growth. Here are some excerpts from the discussion section of her article:

Positive events can, in fact, catalyze growth. Although hedonic happiness levels tend to return to baseline after positive events, important changes in eudaimonic well-being and in worldview may remain. Four domains of growth are particularly important after positive events:

  • new meaning and purpose in life;
  • higher self-esteem;
  • spiritual development;
  • and better relationships.

Some positive experiences are more likely to lead to (self-perceived) growth than others. […] Events that evoke stronger positive emotions are more closely linked to growth. This is consistent with Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory: positive events can provide opportunities to expand one’s thought-action repertoire, and this expansion can be perceived as growth. Indeed, participants who reported that a positive experience opened their eyes to new opportunities, goals, roles, and values also felt they had grown more. […] Inspiration, awe, and elevation are especially important positive emotions for growth. […] In contrast, more hedonic positive emotion (e.g. feeling joyful and content) predicts less growth.

Inspiration is related to meaning, a sense of connection to something greater than the self. Meaning, like inspiration, is closely tied to growth: meaningful experiences are associated with more growth than experiences of accomplishment, engagement, relationship, and hedonic positive emotion.

Roepke´s conclusion:

Our best moments can inspire us, connect us to something greater than ourselves, and open our eyes to new possibilities, ultimately giving rise to growth.

Hence, there is gain without pain. If we seek out the right positive experiences, we are able to experience gain from previous gains, possibly entering into an upward-spiral of growth.

On Purpose: I will not die an unlived Life

Yesterday, I stumbled upon this beautiful poem which teaches us about the power of purpose. Frankly speaking, I hadn’t heard of the author before. But there is a book by the same name (I will not die an unlived life) which I’ve just ordered – so maybe, there’s more to come here…

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