Pleasure and Flourishing: Two Approaches to Happiness

05.09.2019 |

Episode #2 of the course The philosophy of happiness by Dr. Will Buckingham


Welcome to Day 2! Today, we will be discussing two different ways of looking at happiness from Western philosophical traditions. These approaches have been the subject of debate since ancient times.

The main debate could be posed like this: Is a happy life one in which we experience as much pleasure as possible? Or is it a life rich in meaningful activity?

Think about these two questions:

1. Has there ever been a time in your life when you experienced a great deal of pleasure but didn’t feel like your life was flourishing (in other words, that it was rich and meaningful)?

2. Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt that what you were doing was deeply meaningful, but you didn’t experience much pleasure?

Philosophers call approaches to happiness that are about pleasure, hedonic. The word “hedonic” comes from the Greek word, hēdonē, meaning “pleasure.”

Approaches to happiness that ask about meaningful activity are usually talked about as eudaimonic (or sometimes, eudaimonistic). The Greek word, eudaimonia, is often translated as “flourishing.”


What Is Pleasure?

A life without pleasure would be a sad thing. All animals seek out pleasure. My cat stretches out by the fire and purrs contentedly. I sit down with a happy sigh to read philosophy, with a pot of coffee by my side.

A life without pleasure would be a sad thing. Hēdonē is also related to the word for “sweet,” or hedys. Pleasures are all the things that make life feel sweet: warmth, comfort, going out dancing, food, sex, discovering that we have won the lottery, catching up with friends, etc.

In the ancient world, the idea of happiness as pleasure was associated with the philosophical school founded by Epicurus (341–270 BCE).


What about Flourishing?

One common objection to hedonic approaches to happiness is that they are relatively short term. Pleasure is here and now, or “in the moment.” It comes and it goes. Another objection is that this is a purely private (or subjective) way of talking about happiness. Surely, some philosophers say, there is more to life than simply having nice sensations!

This is why many philosophers take a different approach based on eudaimonia. A flourishing plant is one that grows to its full height, one that expresses the excellence (aretē in Greek) of being a plant. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) defined eudaimonia as “doing well”—both in the sense of “faring well” and in the sense of “acting well.” For Aristotle, a flourishing human life is one where we fully develop our own capacities, virtues, and skills.

Regardless of our fleeting feelings of pleasure and discomfort, Aristotle maintains that if we are developing these capacities, we can be said to be happy.


What Is the Difference?

Here are the differences between these two approaches to happiness.

• Hedonic approaches are about immediate pleasure; eudaimonic approaches are about the longer-term patterns of our lives.

• Hedonic approaches are about our experience (how we feel); eudaimonic approaches are about action (what we do).

• We judge the value of hedonic approaches subjectively (does it feel nice?); we judge the value of eudaimonic objectively (does this lead to a flourishing or excellent life?).

Think about why you signed up for this course. Did you sign up …

1. … because you thought it would give you a daily dose of pleasure?

2. … because you thought it might help you flourish more in your life?

If you answered #1, then your motivation was hedonic. If you answered #2, your motivation was eudaimonic.

But you probably wanted a daily dose of pleasure and hoped that the course would help you flourish. In other words, in our daily lives, eudaimonic and hedonic approaches to happiness often overlap.

Tomorrow, we will be looking at what contemporary science says about happiness. Until then, be happy (whatever approach to happiness you take!).

All the best,



Recommended listening

Listen to this discussion about virtue and pleasure from the BBC.


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