The concept of happiness is the corner stone of the assumptions of positive psychology. Happiness is characterised by the experience of more frequent positive affective states than negative ones as well as a perception that one is progressing toward important life goals (Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Identifying factors that contribute to happiness has proven to be challenging. Interestingly though, one thing that does stand out in the research to date is that the attainment and pursuit of pleasure may not always lead to happiness.

Certain kinds of environmental factors or conditions have been found to be associated with happiness and include such things as: individual income, labour market status, health, family, social relationships, moral values and many others (Carr, 2004; Selim, 2008; Diener, Oishi & Lucas, 2003). Ultimately, in the pursuit of understanding happiness, there are two main theoretical perspectives which focus on addressing the question of what makes people feel good and happy. These are the hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to happiness (Keyes, Shmotkin, & Ryff, 2002).

Hedonic wellbeing

Hedonic wellbeing is based on the notion that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness. Hedonic concepts are based on the notion of subjective wellbeing. Subjective well-being is a scientific term that is commonly used to denote the ‘happy or good life’. It comprises of an affective component (high positive affect and low negative affect) and a cognitive component (satisfaction with life). It is proposed that an individual experiences happiness when positive affect and satisfaction with life are both high (Carruthers & Hood, 2004).

Eudaimonic wellbeing

Eudaimonic wellbeing, on the other hand, is strongly reliant on Maslow’s ideas of self actualisation and Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person and their subjective well being. Eudaimonic happiness is therefore based on the premise that people feel happy if they experience life purpose, challenges and growth. This approach adopts Self-Determination Theory to conceptualise happiness (Keyes et al., 2002; Deci & Ryan, 2000). Self determination theory suggests that happiness is related to fulfilment in the areas of autonomy and competence.

From this perspective, by engaging in eudaimonic pursuits, subjective well being (happiness) will occur as a by product. Thus, life purpose and higher order meaning are believed to produce happiness. It appears that the general consensus is that happiness does not result from the pursuit of pleasure but from the development of individual strengths and virtues which ties in with the concept of positive psychology (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009). The differences between eudaimonic and hedonic happiness are listed below.

Hedonic (Subjective Wellbeing)

  1. Presence of positive mood
  2. Absence of negative mood
  3. Satisfaction with various domains of life (e.g. work, leisure)
  4. Global life satisfaction

Eudaimonic (Psychological Wellbeing)

  1. Sense of control or autonomy
  2. Feeling of meaning and purpose
  3. Personal expressiveness
  4. Feelings of belongingness
  5. Social contribution
  6. Competence
  7. Personal growth
  8. Self acceptance

Positive psychologists view happiness from both the hedonistic and eudaimonic view in which they define happiness in terms of the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008). Peterson et al., identified three pathways to happiness from the positive psychological view:

  1. Pleasure is the process of maximising positive emotion and minimising negative emotion and is referred to as the pleasant life which involves enjoyable and positive experiences.
  2. Engagement is the process of being immersed and absorbed in the task at hand and is referred to as the good life which involves being actively involved in life and all that it requires and demands. Thus the good life is considered to result from the individual cultivating and investing their signature strengths and virtues into their relationships, work and leisure (Seligman, 2002) thus applying the best of self during challenging activities that results in growth and a feeling of competence and satisfaction that brings about happiness.
  3. Meaning is the process of having a higher purpose in life than our selves and is referred to as the meaningful life which involves using our strengths and personal qualities to serve this higher purpose. The meaningful life, like the good life, involves the individual applying their signature strengths in activities, but the difference is that these activities are perceived to contribute to the greater good in the meaningful life.

Ultimately, it is a combination of each of these three elements described above that positive psychology suggests would constitute authentic and stable happiness (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009; Carruthers & Hood, 2004).