At university in the final year, I discuss with students the definition of well-being. It seems strange that such a basic topic as “being well” can be complicated. Of course, I am talking about Psychological well-being, the sense you may (or may not) have that you are feeling ok. In those lectures we explore whether well-being is “Hedonic” or “Eudaimonic”: in other words is it about a feeling of pleasure while avoiding pain or is it related to your ability to function at your best in society while meeting personal goals?

Hedonic well-being is relatively easy to understand – am I at this moment in time feeling happiness or am I feeling sad or down. Eudaimonic is a bit more complicated, after all surely well-being as a concept has to include some level of “positive emotion”. Aristotle, argued this was a dangerous path to take, not everything that we do for pleasure is good. I love eating savoury snacks (Kettle chips to be exact) and I feel momentary happiness doing so, but soon follows a dawning realisation that it will not help me hit my goal of being healthy. Of course, this is a rather mundane and silly example, but in essence it gets straight to the nub of Aristotle’s issue with hedonism and he was persuaded to suggest that a virtuous life is a good life and only this will ultimately enhance a persons sense of well-being. Positive psychology has utilised this language of virtues, function and purpose to guide their research and theories. The focus has been around concepts that are labelled “Character Strengths and Virtues” which are:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Courage
  3. Humanity
  4. Justice
  5. Temperance
  6. Transcendence

Feeling well is a central aim of Positive Psychology, that promotes eudaimonism as the pathway to happiness (note this is also hedonistic).  Whilst Positive Psychology does not refute that negative emotions exist and even that at times they are beneficial, there is a greater emphasis on achieving happiness. And this leads us onto another discussion about well-being and hedonism. Are you still “well” when you are experiencing negative emotions such as for example, loss after a loved one? Reviewing Artistole, shows that eudaimonism includes authentic living, again picked up by Positive Psychology. It is surely true that grief is an honest experience and ignoring this is accepted by most as not a functional response to loss.   Bereavement is probably a discussion for another day but for now let me introduce you to the concept of “emodiversity”. Now you may be thinking of emo’s dressed in a variety of black clothes, but no – this term means the range of emotions we need to feel because we are human. It is nicely described here on this clip from BBC radio 4’s programme “All in the mind”, you will need to be registered with the BBC and skip to 25 mins in the podcast, though the rest of it is also well worth a listen to.