What is the Secret to Happiness in Life?
Impact Stories
February 15, 2019 – Liberalism

What is the Secret to Happiness in Life?

Researchers at Wake Forest University hope to answer the age-old question of the secret to happiness with the first Eudaimonia Index.


While many of us long to learn the secrets to happiness, researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are trying to uncover the secrets to something they consider much deeper and broader than simply being happy —eudaimonia  (yoo-dye-mo-NEE-uh), Aristotle’s word for “flourishing.” Since 2016, Wake Forest’s Eudaimonia Institute has studied the ancient Greek concept, which, despite Aristotle’s term, is difficult to define. “A eudaimonic life is not just feeling pleasure, although pleasure might be part of it. It’s not just contentment, although contentment might be a part of it,” says Dr. James Otteson, Executive Director of the Eudaimonia Institute. “The intuitive idea is what kind of life should you lead such that at the end of it, when you’re 85 or 90 years old, you look back at your life and you say, ‘Yes, that was a life worth having been led.’”

In its quest to better understand eudaimonia, the first-of-its-kind institute brings together researchers from economics, political science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. “There are lots of people in different disciplines working on various aspects of trying to understand what a truly flourishing life is,” says Otteson. “We wanted to create an intellectual community that cut across those disciplinary boundaries.”

In the short time since it opened, the institute has provided research grants to two dozen academic projects on topics ranging from how Alexander became ‘Great’ to whether contact sports enable human flourishing. It has also brought together researchers from across North Carolina to collaborate on issues surrounding health care economics, and it has hosted two large academic conferences. The first, “Eudaimonia: What Is It and How Can It Be Assessed?,” sparked discussions on virtue, purpose, productivity, subjectivity and measurement, while the second, “Rethinking Community,” explored what it means to live in today’s diverse and polarized society.

In December 2017, the institute launched a lecture series featuring Muhammad Yunus as its inaugural speaker. Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the global microfinance movement through his Grameen Bank, a non-profit in Bangladesh that provided small, collateral-free loans to the poor, mostly women, to start their own businesses. His talk focused on his life’s work and his vision for a world without poverty. This April, the institute will host Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who will discuss his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

In its boldest project to date, the institute is creating the world’s first Eudaimonia Index, which will rank the world’s countries on how well their cultural, political, moral, and economic institutions encourage human flourishing. “The goal is to provide a tool to help economists and other policymakers organize and evaluate their institutions,” says economist Dr. Adam Hyde, associate director of the Eudaimonia Institute and head of the project.

To create the index, Hyde and his two research associates, Dr. Mona Ahmadiani and Dr. Fengyu Wu, will examine data from Gallup, the World Values Survey, General Social Survey, and the Economic Freedom of the World Index as well as collect their own data. They hope to publish their first report within a year and to complete the index within the next three years.

Hyde says their greatest hurdle will be tackling the subjective nature of eudaimonia. “If you ask people how well they are doing or how satisfied they are with their lives, my answer to that question may be a 7 out of 10,” says Hyde. “But somebody else who has exactly the same objective life but has an extremely sunny disposition may say, ‘I’m an 8.’ So, what do we do with that if we are policymakers or if we’re trying to aggregate across individuals and make some kind of statement about how the country overall is doing? We need to understand what biases may go into people’s responses,” he says.

Using these subjective measures are important because they tell a story that objective measures, like unemployment or annual income, alone may not. “Right now, the economy seems to be doing pretty well, but there are still narratives that we hear about despair and we still have increasing drug addiction and drug-related deaths despite having economic success, so where is the complement to these objective measures?” says Hyde. “Part of what the index wants to do is to try to measure these components of a flourishing life that we’re missing with objective data.”

Otteson and Hyde hope the index becomes a signature item of the institute. “There’s really nobody who has been able to figure out exactly how to unite the subjective with the objective measures in a way that withstands scrutiny,” says Otteson. “If we can pull off an index like this, it would be path breaking.”