Go Start DOING! An Introduction to Activity Theories and How They Make You Happy

 Activity Theory to Happiness

Activity theories of well-being have been around since the days of Aristotle, and have ultimately stood the test of time and science. 

In this article, we’ll cover what activity theories are and how you can improve your happiness by incorporating them into your life


Activity theories, in short, state that humans must ACT in order to live and live well. 

The term originating with Ed Diener in 1984, according to activity theories of well-being, doing things in certain ways and for particular reasons constitute a kind of goodness in itself. In other words, happiness is a “by-product” of being active in the right way. (Diener, 1984)

For example, when ascending a mountain, the climbing itself might bring greater happiness than reaching the summit. This was fairly novel, because previous Telic theories that focus on the pleasure of accomplishing a goal can’t account for the pre-goal element of well-being.

Activity theories claim that it is activity–not passivity–that is the modus operandi of our lives (Mayr, 1982; Pross, 2016). 

In other words, the key to happiness lies in what we DO.

The Beginnings of Activity Theories

While Diener may have coined the term activity theory, the concept has been around for millenia. Aristotle believed all creatures were driven by a “summum bonum” or ultimate goal, and that happiness was derived from the pursuit of that goal. 

Modern biologists agree, and refer to this as “teleonomy” (Pross, 2016).

How does this play into activity theory? According to MacIntyre, it is “only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.” (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 149).

In other words, the reason activities contribute so much to our well-being is because those activities are in accordance with some ultimate goal that resonates with what Aristotle would call our “virtues.”

Since Aristotle, it’s been determined that having ONE ultimate goal isn’t necessarily the only path. In fact, there are many different kinds of goals (and thus activities) that can do the trick of making us happy, and any one individual might actively pursue more than one at a time as an optimal path for happiness. It’s really up to the person.

What’s most important in this equation is “person-activity fit” – that there is a match between one’s dispositions (and these are different for each of us) and the goals that we hold and activities we perform (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013).

That Time Activity Theory Went Dark for Centuries…

Activity theories were relatively unchallenged until the enlightenment. Then, for a time, they were more or less abandoned. 

Deontology (Kant), utilitarianism/consequentialism (Bentham) and contractism (Hobbes) dominated, and these theories were more economic in nature. Essentially, well-being and money became inexplicably intertwined. The theory (the basis of free-market capitalism) went, since people in a market act on a voluntary basis, prices will adjust until supply equals demand. In other words, markets produce the best of all possible worlds (Hausman, Kwak, 2017, Chapter 2; Jordan, 2008; Moore & Crisp, 1996; Ringen, 1995; Sumner, 1996).

Looking back, it’s easy for us to see that this is a bit nuts. Even leaders of this philosophical movement at the time like Adam Smith were cynical about the impact it would have on well-being. Smith even acknowledged that in his model. He stated that doing work simply had a “negative utility.” Work robbed workers of their ability to practice a skilled craft by removing their ability to practice and improve on a holistic skill. In other words, division of labor was good for business, but BAD for well-being. Eventually, even Smith became very concerned about this (Heilbroner, 1973).

A hundred years later, science began to confirm Smith’s concerns, and economic theories of well–being started to fall away. 

Craftsmanship and a Return to Activity Theories 

So economic welfarism had its shortcomings. It reduced humanity down to some balance of demands and supplies. But that’s not how humans work. These theories were the result of doing science without theoretical guidance.

The eventual evidence pouring in that well-being suffered under these conditions prompted a return to activity theory – that in order to live, humans must be active. In order to live well, they must be active in the right way.

When you combine this theory with the workplace, you get craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship is a “desire to do a job well for its own sake.” The new model for a society good for BOTH business AND the well-being of the individual worker could be “learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens” (Sennett, 2008). So what’s so great about craftsmanship for well-being?

Craftsmanship provides nourishment from a fine rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. The often slowness and repetitiveness of it brings about reflection and self-criticism, critical elements of skill development. And skill development is this enduring process that gets you constantly refining your ability, which in itself is gratifying. Those who perform a craft become engaged in the work in and for itself.

In short, creating and craftsmanship have intrinsic benefits for your well-being, and psychologists would classify it as a form of intrinsic motivation (Sennett, 2008).

Flow, an Attribute of Activity Theories

Both craftsmanship and broader activity theories also resonate with Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, which we’ll cover in more detail in a separate article. 

In short, when the challenge is slightly higher than the skill, you’re motivated to keep working to overcome the difficulty, and are rewarded for it with challenge-skill balance. 

The give and take between that imbalance and balance eventually lead you to a state of “flow,” where you both develop your potential and feel great simultaneously, which can drive intensely positive feelings of pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, and enjoyment.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, a happy life is one which MUST have flow on a regular basis.

Let’s now briefly cover several of the most prominent activity theories.

Activity Theory: Internal Motivation

The authors of the internal motivation theory claim that the traditional perspective on intrinsic motivation is too narrow to properly explain the association between activities and well-being. 

They instead lean into the Aristotelian idea that the measure of a good life is “doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons.”

In other words, internal motivation theory claims that well-being is impacted by the combination of the actual act and the reason for the act. (Schwartz, 2015; Schwartz & Wrzesniewski, 2016)

Activity Theory: Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory states that humans have an inherent and fundamental need to grow toward vitality, integration and good health, and this growth is regulated by three psychological needs:

  1. Competence – A person must feel competent
  2. Autonomy – A person must feel autonomous/in control
  3. Relatedness – A person must feel connected

These psychological needs are not a part of the concept of well-being – they are the causes of well-being, the theory goes. They believe these activities produce happiness as a byproduct (Ryan & Martela, 2016). They are the means to the end (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2008).

Authors of SDT affirm that to live a really satisfying life, you must do activities that develop and express your most “valued and well integrated potentialities.” In other words, you must do stuff that fulfills your intellectual, social, and productive potential (Ryan et al., 2013). 

Activity Theory: The Functional Well-Being Approach

The functional well-being approach (FWA; Vittersø, 2013a, 2013b; Vittersø, 2016a) proposes a set of mechanisms that identify activities with the state of being well.

This comes in two forms:

  • Hedonic Well-Being 
      1. HWB is the the maximization of felt pleasure (being happy IN your life) and attitudinal pleasure (life satisfaction, or being happy WITH your life)  (Vittersø, 2016b)
      2. The principle states that you need to remain in an equilibrium among your biological, psychological, and social states; further, that being OUT of equilibrium produces displeasure, and HWB is regaining that balance and again producing pleasure
  • Eudemonic Well-Being
    1. Where HWB regulates stability/balance, EWB regulates change.
    2. EWB is often described as “being happy fulfilling your life.” (Vittersø, 2016b) It’s when you’re out there being virtuous, living your values, and providing great things for the world.
    3. Change can bring feelings of engagement, curiosity, interest, and sometimes awe.
    4. A related principle which can aid us in achieving these feelings is the moderate novelty principle: that we feel most interested when the thing bears some relevance to what we already know, but is sufficiently novel to present incongruities and conflicts to the existing structures (Ginsburg & Opper, 1969).

Conclusion: How Can I Apply All of This and Live a Great Life?

Let’s answer this question with a series of questions. Please answer these for yourself, and hopefully, it will result in actionable takeaways for you to make real improvements in your life! 

And remember, you can learn, think, and believe, but happiness is going to come from the DOING. So you can write down the answers, but if you don’t go DO anything about it, then you haven’t really created value for yourself. 

  1. How are you applying craftsmanship in your life?
  2. What are your one (or two or three) main goals in your life, and what actions are you taking toward those goals?
  3. Are you regularly achieving flow in your “work,” whether you're paid for it or not?
  4. Do you feel competent, autonomous, and connected? Do you feel, in your life, you are generally spending time on activities that advance your intellectual, social, and productive potential? If not, what could you do about it?
  5. Do you feel happy IN your life? Is your life in balance with your biological, psychological, and social needs? What needs are you not meeting and how could you meet them?
  6. Do you feel SATISFIED in your life? What is lacking that you could take action on?
  7. Do you feel you’re living your values? Providing real value to the world, making it a better place? Are you regularly changing, learning, and growing toward this?

Good luck, go start DOING, and enjoy life!


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