In the last several years, the cultural conversation has shifted heavily towards the subject of happiness. We want to know how to discover it, how to maintain it, and what keeps us from finding it. Written into the Declaration of Independence (“Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness”), happiness is as American as apple pie. 

But then again, happiness is a vague concept. Most of us would say we want to be happy, but what exactly are we pursuing? Is happiness really the be-all and end-all for a good life?   

Hedonic Happiness vs. Eudaimonic Happiness

Experts who study positive psychology have been taking the time to answer these questions and better understand what actually enhances wellbeing. What they’ve established is that there are not only different types of happiness, but they don’t necessarily benefit us in the same way.

Hedonic happiness is happiness that focuses on embracing pleasure and avoiding pain. It’s what we often use to describe the feeling of happiness. It’s eating ice cream or watching your favorite movie. It’s doing the activities that boost your mood.

Eudaimonic happiness, on the other hand, is a little different.  The word “Eudaimonia” is often associated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote that humans could achieve “eudaimonia” or “wellness” by living up to their full potential. Eudaimonic happiness is a state of overall wellbeing that we cultivate when we have meaning in our lives. People who rate high in eudaimonic happiness have a sense of purpose and engage in activities that are fulfilling. 

Eudaimonia, however, isn’t contingent on feeling good all the time. In fact, it can be quite challenging and uncomfortable. For example, an ER doctor may find her job immensely gratifying but must also grapple with the pain of seeing patients suffer. Similarly, most parents won’t hesitate to tell you how stressful it is to raise children. But many will also tell you that being a parent is one of the most rewarding things they’ve ever done.

Eudaimonia: Healthier Than Hedonism

There are lots of forces in our culture that encourage us to pursue hedonic happiness. Commercials and other media tend to emphasize excitement, leisure, and fun purchases. These things aren’t bad, but the positive feelings they give us are often fleeting.

Having a sense of purpose has shown better outcomes over the course of a lifetime. And not just emotionally, but physically too. Eudaimonic happiness has been linked to fewer strokes and heart attacks as well as a decreased risk for dementia. People who live with purpose tend to sleep better and have a longer lifespan. Eudaimonic happiness also appears to help people cope in the face of struggle.

So is meaning more important than happiness? Perhaps. Or maybe, we simply need to rethink the definition of happiness.

Finding purpose may seem like an overwhelming task. You can’t buy a sense of meaning from the store. But you can slowly cultivate it by engaging with the world around you, by learning more about yourself and what matters to you, by taking small actions that lead to greater opportunities for both you and others. Volunteering, pursuing creative work, nurturing deep relationships, and fostering a community are all great ways to start.

Until then, there’s certainly no reason to stop eating ice cream or turn off your favorite TV show. Eudaimonic happiness and hedonic happiness can live side by side. With a balanced life, they often do.