How does media impact happiness? That depends on how you define happiness. There are two primary approaches that academics use to research and discuss happiness and well-being – the terms used to describe these approaches are ‘hedonic’ and ‘eudaimonic.’ (Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 2003; Ryan & Deci, 2001; Ryff, 1998; Waterman, 1993). According to the hedonic approach, well-being or happiness refers to the presence of positive experiences or pleasure, and the absence of pain, suffering or negative affect (Ryan et al., 2008; Kahneman et al., 2003). Ryan and Deci (2001) explain that hedonic well-being or happiness is outcome-oriented because it requires short-term satisfaction derived from the fulﬁllment of needs. In this view, happiness can be defined as the accumulation of pleasurable, or hedonic, moments or outcomes. Essentially, hedonic happiness is about receiving, where eudaimonic happiness is about giving, or enhancing one’s sense of life meaning.
The word “eudaimonia” was first introduced in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics in 350 B.C. (Aristotle, 2000). Originally it was simply interpreted to mean happiness (Bradburn, 1969), but eudaimonia has since been interpreted in terms of the cultivation of personal strengths and contribution to the greater good (Aristotle, trans. 2000). Robinson (1999) interprets eudaimonia to mean ‘human flourishing.’ Waterman (1993) describes it as the activities involved in expressing one’s virtue, and Ryan and Deci (2001) go on to explain that eudaimonic happiness is only found in the expression of one’s lofty virtues. In other words, to be eudaimonically happy, one must live life congruent with one’s deeply held values and virtues, thereby reaching toward the fulfillment of one’s potential or life purpose. Tomer (2011) takes it a step further, explaining that eudaimonic happiness is “determined by the degree to which the person has realized his/her human potential, experiencing high life satisfaction and flourishing that are the result of efforts to overcome mental imbalances (suffering)” (p. 530).
Subjective well-being (SWB) is differentiated from the concept of happiness. Ryan and Deci (2001) write, “Although there are many ways to evaluate the pleasure/pain continuum in human experience, most research within the new hedonic psychology has used assessment of subjective well-being” (p. 144). To be clear, SWB refers to how people evaluate the quality of their lives using positive affect, negative affect and their sense of life satisfaction (Diener, et al., 1999). SWB can also be enhanced by media technologies. For example, Oliver and Raney (2011) explain that eudaimonic and hedonic well-being are identifiable in the two-dimensional scale of eudaimonic-hedonic entertainment motivation. They present evidence that, in addition to viewing movies for hedonic motivations (i.e. enjoyment, fun, and suspense), individuals can also have eudaimonic motivations when they seek entertainment experiences if those experiences provoke thought, inspiration or new insights on life meaning. Eudaimonic entertainment, they argue, can enhance eudaimonic well-being.
Wirth, Hofer and Schramm (2012) describe seven categories involved in eudaimonic well-being. These include:
1) Positive relations with others/relatedness,
2) Purpose or meaning in life,
4) Environmental mastery/competence,
6) Personal growth, and
7) Living according to central personal values.
According to Waterman (1993) entertainment can be eudaimonic when it promotes living in accordance with one’s central values (see also Oliver & Bartsch, 2010; Oliver & Bartsch, 2011; Oliver & Hartman, 2010; Oliver & Raney, 2012). For example, the multifaceted and complicated stories of characters in thought-provoking ﬁlms can inspire viewers, move them to action, fill them with compassion, teach them to be less judgmental, imbue them with gratitude or help them refine what is really important in life. In other words, the values in films or other media can magnify and promote the living of one’s central values, and the result is increased happiness, or SWB. In their film research, Oliver and Hartmann (2010) found that the most frequently mentioned film values were those describing ‘relatedness’ or human connections. Themes included various manifestations of connecting with others, i.e. love relationships, friendships, helping others.
When a media experience activates an individual’s central values, it creates an emotional state similar to ‘elevation’ as described by Algoe and Haidt (2009). According to Algoe and Haidt, people experience elevation when they observe human excellence, including performances, commitment to justice or a worthy belief, or the charitable acts of others (p. 107). They explain that when a meaningful movie activates central values, viewers feel like they are vicariously experiencing the values of the characters in those films. Activating central values contributes to a feeling of happiness and reminds individuals that they are advancing toward their life purpose, or have a life worth living.
Research using the uses-and-gratifications theory has revealed a variety of viewing motivations. These include personal identity, personal relationships, information seeking, integration, and diversion/escapism/entertainment (Rubin, 2002). There is a growing body of work in positive psychology that supports the concept that the entertainment experience expands beyond hedonic motivations, especially when the film experience results in profound feelings, the magnification of deeply-held values and deeper insights into human existence (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, 2011; Oliver & Hartmann, 2010; Ryan & Deci, 2001; Ryff, 1998; Waterman, 1993). Aside from film, an increase in subjective well-being can also be expected to come from poignant or meaningful television shows, music, video games, virtual reality experiences and other forms of media that activate at least one of the seven categories of eudaimonic well-being described by Wirth, Hofer and Schramm (2012) above. As human beings who constantly seek happiness and well-being, media can be more than simply entertainment, but it can contribute to a life worth living.
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