What is eudemonism?
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
This is an article by Marie Donzel and was written for the Danone EVE Programme. The original French can be found here: https://www.eveprogramme.com/en/40431/what-is-eudemonism/ and the translation into English is my own work.
Being happy while feeling good about yourself, and having healthy relationships with those around you is the foundation of personal development and positive psychology. And that bundle of goodness has a name: eudemonism. The editorial team at the EVE webmagazine wanted to learn more about this philosophical doctrine that encourages people to be happy for the benefit of everyone.
Eudemonism can trace its etymology back to ancient Greek term εὐδαιμονία, meaning “beatitude”. So what’s the difference between that and hedonism – from the Greek ἡδονή meaning “pleasure”?
Both clearly have ties with happiness. But hedonism is about enjoying pleasure, and sparing yourself from suffering, while eudemonism is about the genuine satisfaction that life can bring. Eudemonism is happiness with meaning, purpose, and the potential for achievement.
Eudemonism: back to the Ancients
Platonic ideals of “demonic” and virtuous happiness
It all began when Plato became a mouthpiece for Socrates. The ancestor of Western philosophy believed that eudemonism is “demonic” happiness, that is to say, it goes beyond humans, and brings them closer to God when they strive to be wise and virtuous. “The men and women who are gentle and good are also happy” he explains in the Gorgias, “and the unjust and evil are miserable”.
The hedonists of the time laughed at his ideas, just like those who mock the politically correct movement today: how sad that happiness should require such high morals! Pleasures aren’t all moral, far from it.
Aristotle’s intellectualist eudemonism states that happiness is found in truth
The thrill of instant enjoyment and what may sometimes be described as guilty pleasures is hardly supported in Aristotle’s take on eudemonism: the roving philosopher believed that happiness should be sought in truth and within oneself. A clue to finding that happiness: truth lies in balance, even moderation, as well as in reason.
Happy fans of Aristotle don’t strive to satisfy their needs, and especially don’t seek to form opinions. They live their lives using their “educated mind”, paying attention to the outside world but independent of external influences that could corrupt a deep inner quest for truth. Wow. Not much pleasure in that. But let’s try and untie those intellectual knots and start finding some of that real elicit happiness.
Sensualist epicurism: bringing the body into the quest for happiness
Things start improving somewhat with Epicurus, for whom happiness is like a liquid flowing from the body to the mind and from the spirit to the body, provided that you are aware of how lucky you are (and know how to find what the French call kifs in your life) to eat well, sleep comfortably, breathe clean air, feel the warmth of the sun or a gentle breeze, have your needs met and your desires fulfilled.
So, feelings of frustration or the inability to be content with what we have aren’t true suffering. Basically we could say that happiness is when the glass is half full, as long as the water is clear and safe to drink.
Stoic happiness: the ethics of interiority
For the Stoic thinker Zenon, happiness is also a liquid, more precisely “a good flow of life”. And that liquid can flow smoothly when we live intelligently in harmony with nature, and our environment in general. Nothing is insurmountable, not hunger, nor poverty, nor abandonment, nor disasters… We can keep trying to find ways of protecting ourselves, but nothing is certain: a random event, an accident, or the ill-meaning intention of another person can all destroy our efforts to build a secure future.
What doesn’t depend on our own selves cannot be changed, and must be accepted by working on what does depend on our own selves: our thoughts, our judgments, and our will. Integrity gives us the strength to work on building an “inner citadel”, an unpenetrable private self that gives us control over our ability to feel happiness. I may be imprisoned, raped, or tortured, but I will still be myself, and can draw on my strong personal resources to resist those violations.
Eudemonism and engagement theories
Spinoza: live a happy and engaged life
In the seventeenth century, Spinoza began pondering the subject that had long been neglected by Western philosophy: happiness, and set out to create a moral code for joy. Desire was given the central role. Being able to identify what you really want, what drives you forward and motivates your actions (in free and autonomous individuals, obviously), is the path to happiness!
And that happiness will radiate, because it brings you closer to others and grows as you interact with them. If you are to be happy, you need to make others happy too. The idea is to redistribute wealth (the joy of giving as some charities say), share, engage.
Eudemonism and utilitarianism: a shared interest in meaningful causes
Utilitarian economists and their liberal descendants wholeheartedly agree: people who do what they love (a slight diversion from the Spinozist notion of desire) put their heart and soul into doing it. Nothing beats an individual who is deeply motivated to give the best of him or herself.
And the ideas behind productivity are the result of that: ensure well-being at work, listen to the need for a higher purpose than providing an income to feed the family, ensure employees understand the meaning of what they are doing, all contribute to good employee/employer relations. The first doesn’t watch the clock, the second provides the space and time to create value in line with the company’s main objective. And you never know, the expertise and experience acquired by an employee who is committed to ecology, charity work or feminism might even come in handy!
However, there is a risk of misunderstanding, even a conflict of loyalty: is an employee who channels energy into personal convictions and acquires skills and expertise in those areas of activism likely to rise up once day against the company if it doesn’t respect the environment enough, or doesn’t practice social diversity or professional equality?
So, supporting a cause implicitly depends on justifying a contribution to performance: feminism must focus on promoting diversity as a means to drive innovation; a keen knowledge of environmental issues must be used to enhance the CSR policy or a company’s ecosystem strategy, sensitivity to people must be used enrich a company’s insight into its market, help to identify atypical talent and benefit the organization’s “human side”.
Eudemonism and impact: how can meaning, well-being and economic and social performance be combined?
Positive leadership: be well, act well
Positive psychology resuscitated the idea of eudemonism in the 1990s. This take on personal development is about creating strong individuals with finely-honed social skills, who will then positively impact everyone and everything around them. The PERMA model developed by the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, is symptomatic of this vision: he recommends using Positive Emotions (P) to Engage (E) in the present and for the benefit of the future, and influence others using exemplary leadershipbased on Relationships (R) and respect for each person’s need for Meaning (M) and Accomplishment (A).
The approach wins support because it appeals to common sense: obviously it’s preferable to have woke trailblazers who are balanced, generous, open-minded and respectful.
But positive leadership then runs into a fundamental issue: the poorly demonstrated performance of the runoff principle in change making. In other words, who is to say that an individual with a positive personal outlook is also positively impacting his or her environment? In what way is a confirmed eudemonist able to combine personal benefit with the benefit of other people within his or her family, company or social circles?
Happiness at work: eudemonism in action?
Chief Happiness Officer: a study in eudemonism
And suddenly, Chief Happiness Officers start popping up in the business world! Their job is to ensure that everyone in the company benefits from conditions that enhance their well-being, as well as their personal fulfillment or even happiness.
Because “Happy employees are half as sick, six times less absent, nine times more loyal, 31% more productive and 55% more creative,” says conference speaker and founder of HappyPerformance Laurence Vanhée, basing her findings on various studies carried out by MIT and Harvard. And those roles are growing quickly within businesses: the club they belong to in France reports that no fewer than 200 large companies now have a CHO.
Can we really make other people happy?
It doesn’t take long to find the irony in the concept: by its very essence, happiness is philosophical, complex and free, so can it really be quantified using a set of KPIs, and measured as a factor impacting profitability? “Instead of admitting that happiness is something that happens to us or doesn’t happen, depending on parameters that are sometimes beyond our control, it is misleadingly presented as a goal that is directly attainable, immediately accessible, and based on formulas”, point out Nicolas Bouzou and Julia de Funès in their book La Comédie (in)humaine which was published in September 2018.
Are companies supposed to create happiness or money?
Others criticize the concept as looking at business through rose-colored glasses. Change expert Philippe Schleiter, author of Management: le grand retour du réel (2017) believes that “men and women aren’t looking to be pampered, spoiled or comforted in the workplace. On the contrary, they want to be seen as autonomous and responsible beings, able to take initiatives, take on challenges, and through their hard work, contribute to collective projects that are bigger than they are, and of which they can be proud. In other words, if managers want to ensure that their employees are happy, the best way is for them to choose passion over compassion”.
His approach is eudemonist in its own way, because it is about passion, independence, and meaning, but calls for a return to conventional leadership, which is mostly about economic profitability and dabbles only in well-being at work with regards to the framework of legal provisions that guarantee employees safety and physical and psychological integrity.
Eudemonism for neo-paternalism?
In contrast to this conservative criticism, the authors of Happycratie (2018), Eva Illouz and Edgar Cabanas, point out the risk posed by neo-paternalism that is no longer satisfied with offering employees sports facilities and other distractions, just like during the Industrial Revolution, but encroaches onto their emotions, even their private lives, possibly depriving them of boundaries between their work life, social life and personal life… to the point where their critical eye begins to droop wearily. “We run businesses today by promising happiness and holding up positive feelings as standards. If we promise somebody something then we secure their loyalty. The promise of happiness is made on the condition of working and transforming the self. Working on yourself is a way of being controlled,” says Eva Illouz in an interview with Le Monde.
For empowering and responsibilizing eudemonism
All this criticism challenges quality-of-life-at-work professionals who go on promoting flexible and empathic leadership that flies in the face of traditionalist perceptions of vertical authority, while opposing the table football caricature as the ultimate source of pleasure at work and suspicions of underlying authoritarianism that “happycratie” may involve.
As ideas about happiness in the workplace evolve, the challenge is no longer to make employees happy merely for the purposes of productivity but to extend the company’s mission as a stakeholder in society, to include its responsibility to empower its employees. This guided empowerment (through training & learning, the right to error, the opportunity to take part in intrapreneurship programs or other undertakings that value initiative) goes hand-in-hand with a parallel expectation for employee empowerment, especially with regard to taking control of their professional project: the paternalistic company has had its day, long live reasoned and autonomous engagement from each individual person.
Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.