Positive Psychology Lecture No 8

Three kinds of happiness: hedonic, eudemonic and chaironic
The Need for International Positive Psychology
Paul T. P. Wong
Ph.D. C.Psych
Tyndale University College
Toronto, Ontario

There is no denying that everyone loves a good time but, arguably, it is also true that most people don’t want to be a hedonic junkie hooked to pleasures. Given the opportunity, I doubt very much whether many people would want to spend their entire lives pushing a little button to electronically stimulate the pleasure centre of their brain.

The reason is simple enough: the good life is more than just feeling good. Similarly, living a virtuous life does not necessarily bring happiness (remember George Santayana's The Last Puritan?); because a meaningful, fulfilling life is more than just living well.

This lecture will attempt to distinguish and explore these three basic types of happiness.

Distinguishing positive and negative emotions

  1. Historically, positive emotions or “satisfying states of affair” have been implicitly linked to research on reward and reinforcement.
  2. According to David Watson and Lee Anna Clark (1994), negative affective states can be best described as general distress, whereas positive affective states include joviality, self-assurance, and attentiveness (See the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule on p.130 of the Textbook).
  3. The positive and negative emotions are relatively independent.
  4. Since positive and negative emotions can coexist, we need to redefine subjective well-being as an overall self-assessment based on both positive and negative emotions
  5. Just Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build model” actually applies to both positive and negative experiences (See Wong’s (1979, 1995) research on the frustration-exploration hypothesis has demonstrated the robust effect of the broaden-and-build effect of frustration

Definitions of happiness

  1. How do you define happiness in your own life?
  2. What makes you happy?
  3. What are some of the signs that someone is happy?
  4. Are there different types of happiness based on your experiences?
  5. How does one achieve enduring happiness?
  6. Can you be generally happy, but still feel troubled by some specific and temporary problems?
  7. How do you restore happiness when you are troubled by some heavy and unresolved issues?
  8. What does it mean when people say that they are not happy, but they have joy?
  9. What kind of happiness did Jesus mean when he said, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt.5:4)?
  10. What kind of happiness did Paul mean when he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil.4:4)?
  11. Is it possible to experience happiness when we have fear of the Lord and a spirit of contrition?

Hedonic happiness

  1. Epicurus identifies happiness with pleasure - it is about feeling good
  2. Based on the pleasant sensations of the five senses and the pleasant feelings of satisfying physical needs
  3. Freud’s pleasure principle (1922) - the hedonic principle of the gratification of instinctive needs
  4. The positive feelings of having satisfied one’s needs and wants (such as eating, shopping, winning, etc.)
  5. The positive effect of pleasurable activities (such as sports, video-games, going out with friends, going to a concert, etc.)
  6. The experience of “flow” for engaging in interesting and challenging activities
  7. The process of pursuing anything pleasant - the journey can be more enjoyable than the destination
  8. The experience of anything beautiful (such as nature or works of art)
  9. Momentary feelings of euphoria related to any kind of addiction
  10. Living for the moment - plunging into the stream of life NOW without worrying about the past or the future
  11. Feelings of happiness and contentment that come from pleasant social interactions and loving relationships
  12. The subjective well-being of being healthy and doing well
  13. Principles of pleasure alone cannot yield authentic happiness, but they can contribute to it
  14. Viktor Frankl’s (1959) experiential meaning consists of when we can receive from life through our senses
  15. The hedonic treadmill often results in deepening feelings of remorse, emptiness, self-loathing and unhappiness, but appreciating the simple pleasures can enrich life
  16. Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) moves beyond Eros and death instincts and recognizes the role of human creativity and the place of beauty in culture

Eudaimonic happiness

  • According to Aristotle eudaimonia is the highest end that is worth pursuing, even when we are not consciously aware of it
  • Happiness is about virtues, about being a virtuous person and doing the right thing, such as contributing to community and humanity; it is same as living the good and ethical life
  • However, Aristotle virtues (such as courage, temperance, and generosity) are more than ethical actions or habits - they reflect our moral character and good dispositions from which good actions ensue. For Aristotle, good character is 90% what precedes the willing of an action.
  • Eudaimonia comes from the Greek word for happiness or flourishing. Aristotle happiness is closely tied to moral virtues, which incline one to make the right choices and pursue the best end.
  • Eudaimonism means that virtuous character traits and the right actions lead to well being. Thus, Pleasure + Dispositional virtues = Well-being
  • According to Aristotle, well being is best fostered and sustained in the exercise of moral virtues and practical wisdoms.
  • “The well-being that using your signature strengths engenders is anchored in authenticity” (Seligman, 2002, p.14).
  • Authentic happiness is trait-like and enduring because there is a unity between one’s character and abilities. This view is consistent with Aristotelian happiness
  • Seligman (2002) recognizes that “just as well-being needs to be anchored in strengths and virtues, these in turn must be anchored in something larger. Just as the good life is something beyond the pleasant life, the meaningful life is beyond the good life” (p.14).
  • Thus, there is still a higher level of happiness that is based on something larger than personal virtues and strengths.
  • A broader understanding of authentic happiness goes beyond signature strengths and virtues - it is anchored in fulfilling our potentials and becoming what we are meant to be in terms how we live of our lives and how we relate to others and God or any Higher power.
  • One can do all the right things out of a sense of duty and obligation and still fail to find happiness. According to Aristotle, doing the right thing is not virtue and does not bring happiness, if it doesn’t stem from the right disposition and motivation.
  1. Doing the good thing does have its intrinsic reward (doing good makes one feels good), but happiness entails more than just doing good deeds. (Doing good deeds sometimes may make one feel angry towards oneself if one’s heart has not been transformed)
  2. The Pharisees saw themselves as ethical, virtuous and religious people, but they had neither love nor joy.
  3. Dispositional virtues may be consistent with the Christian teaching of spiritual transformation and spiritual
  1. In our consumerist society, the good life often means a life of material comforts, financial independence, freedom from struggles and toils, and instant gratification of one’s needs and wants. This is the “American dream”, which has turned into a nightmare for many people.
  2. Robert Samuelson (1995) has argued in his book, The Good Life and Its Discontent, that North Americans have set such high expectations that, inevitably, discontent will set in.
  3. According to John F. Schumaker’s (2007) book, In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind, to focus on happiness and life satisfaction can be counterproductive: “As odd as it sounds, the high levels of self-absorbed happiness that exist today may be driving people crazy, as well as promoting some degree of underlying unhappiness. Repression and depression are closely related. At its most basic level, genuine happiness is unity with one’s nature, which is essentially a social and spiritual nature” (p. 28-29). (To read Wong’s review of this book, please visit: http://www.meaning.ca/archives/reviews/bookreview_search-of-hapiness_P_Wong.htm.)
  4. There is a fundamental difference between the pursuit of virtues and the pursuit of happiness as the highest aim of life.
  5. The pursuit of a virtuous life, to the extent that it demands social responsibility and accountability to our Maker is part of the human quest for meaning.

Chaironic happiness

  1. The happiness that ensues from dispositional virtues and moral character overlaps with chaironic happiness.
  2. Chaironic happiness can be best described as a spiritual gift of joy, often happening in unlikely place. It can come from a spiritual awakening to one’s real role in life and the possibilities of blessings and grace; it can also come from feelings of oneness with God; it can also come from ministering to the suffering and dying (i.e., Mother Theresa)
  3. Happiness is not just about feeling good and doing the right thing, important as they may be, but also have a sense of awe about human existence in the cosmos and reflecting on one’s life and finding it meaningful
  4. What is meaningful and purposeful is not only anchored in one’s own signature strengths and virtues, but also in one’s relationship to something or someone larger - humanity and God.
  5. The most basic philosophical question of happiness is, “what is the life worth living?” (Kingwell,1998, p. 24). We cannot fully answer this basic question by ignoring spiritual, religious and transcendental realities.
  6. Meaning and spirituality are closely related because they both address the big questions of human existence and they both recognize the transcendental reality.
  7. Thus, Pleasures + Virtues + Meaning/Spirituality = Well-being
  8. Augustine of Hippo extended Aristotle’s concept of eudomania to beatitudo, which means blessedness.
  9. Thomas Aquinas more fully developed a Christian model of well-being in terms of complete blessedness through knowing God.
  10. In his “Treatise on Happiness” , which is a section in a much longer work, Summa Theologia, Thomas Aquinas argues that all humans, whether they realize it or not, have the same ultimate end -- beatitude. The only end that would give you the best possible life is to know God and capture a vision of the Divine Essence.
  11. The beatitudes, according to Jesus, emphasizes that true blessedness flows from developing a Christ-like character.
  12. Chaironic happiness, as a gift, is relatively independent of external circumstances and human activities.
  13. One cannot directly pursue chaironic happiness the way one puruses hedonic or eudaeomonic happiness. One either stumbles on charionic happiness or discovers that it has come in through the back door, when one pursues a higher calling.
  14. The compound Chinese term for happiness (xìng fú) has a similar meaning of happiness as a gift. The first word “xing” means good fortune -- good luck -- while the second word “fu” means blessings and happiness. It is not something that entirely depends on your own efforts, because it depends on something and someone far greater than ourselves.
  15. Any complete understanding of happiness and well-being needs to take into account chaironic happiness.

Research directions relevant to chaironic happiness:

This type of happiness is the least researched and the least understood. The following phenomena are promising areas for research into the nature of chaironic happiness

  1. Peak experiences, mindful meditation, transpersonal and mystical experiences of oneness with the universe or God
  2. The serenity and contentment that come from acceptance and surrender to God or a Higher Power
  3. The happiness comes from contrition, humility and mourning for our failings and spiritual poverty
  4. Spiritual joy and deep contentment in times of suffering as expressed by Apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament
  5. Research with dying people and people with terminal cancer show their amazing capacity for appreciating life. For example, one cancer victim said shortly before she died: “The last three months have been my happiest time in my life”.
  6. The joy of anticipation of being delivered from the bodily bondage and entering Heaven
  7. Sense of awe and joy associated with loving and serving as reported by many mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Thomas A. Kempis. This kind of joy also finds frequent expression in Psalms of the Hebrew Bible: "Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling" (Psalm 2:11)
  8. Neurophysiological substrates and mechanisms involved in chaironic happiness


Aquinas, Thomas (1996). “Treatise on Happiness” in Summa Theologia. (John A. Oesterle, trans.). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1273)

Aristotle. (1962). Nichomachean ethics (M. Ostwald, Trans.). Indianapols, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Augustine of Hippo (1937). The Free Choice of the Will (three Books). (F.E. Tourscher, trans.). London: The Peter Reilly Company. (Original work published date unknown)

Frankl, V. (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York,
Beacon Press.

Freud, S. (1989). Civilization and Its Discontents. (J. Strachey, trans.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company. (Original work published 1930)

Kingwell, M. (1998). Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac. Toronto, ON: Penguin Books Canada Ltd.

Shumaker, J. (2007). In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing Group.

Seligman (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (1979). Frustration, exploration,and learning. Canadian Psychological Review, 20, 133-144.

Wong, P. T. P. (1995). Coping with frustrative stress: A behavioral and cognitive analysis. In R. Wong (Ed.), Biological perspective on motivated and cognitive activities. Pp. 339-378. New York: Ablex Publishing

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