‘Hedonic’ and ‘Eudaimonic’ Happiness: Which qualifies best as a moral guide?

Ruut Veenhoven

EHERO working paper 2020-2

Utilitarian moral philosophy holds that the best thing to do is what contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people and sees ‘happiness’ as the subjective enjoyment of one’s life as a whole; the ‘sum of pleasures and pains’. Implementing this 18th century moral principle has become practical since the rise of empirical happiness research in the second half of the 20th century and estimates of effects of practices on happiness figure more prominently in major choices today, public choice in particular.
This moral primacy of happiness is contested from several sides, one of which is positive psychology. Positive psychology is the science of positive mental health where ‘positive mental health’ is seen as a spectrum of mental traits deemed beneficial to the individual, such as autonomy, self-esteem and a sense of meaning. Today many positive psychologists refer to positive mental health as ‘eudaimonic happiness’ and contrast it with ‘hedonic happiness’, that is, the utilitarian notion of happiness as the subjective enjoyment of one’s life.
A common view held by positive psychologists is that we would do better to aim at ‘eudaimonic happiness’ rather than at utilitarian ‘hedonic happiness’. This idea is communicated in the catchphrase ‘Beyond happiness’, which is analogous to the slogan ‘Beyond GDP’ which is used to suggest that policy makers should aim at other things than just economic growth. In this chapter, I consider the strengths and weaknesses of both conceptions of individual wellbeing as a moral guide. I conclude that hedonic happiness (life-satisfaction) is the most clear and practicable criterion and the most universally applicable.

Keywords: greatest happiness principle, life-satisfaction, happiness, positive mental health, utilitarianism

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