birthday cake

Another birthday for me, today. A beautiful spring day after several weeks of gloomy weather. Nature is celebrating my birthday. Earlier this week I sent back my book manuscript with corrections to the queries from the copyeditor. Surprisingly few. This is the last step before it gets type set and I get one more look before it goes to the printer. It has been so long in getting to this point that I have forgotten some of the details. But not too bad for an octogenarian.

The Boston Globe’s main oped piece today was a critique of happiness as the primary driver of living. The author, Amy Cuddy, started by noting that

…hedonic happiness is a state, and states are transient. None of us can feel happy all the time. And expecting that we can creates a stark discrepancy from reality — one that ironically leads us to feel less happy. Inherently self-focused, the pursuit of happiness can isolate us from the close social connections critical to nourishing us, as addressed in Ruth Whippman’s book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” Happiness hangovers can even leave us feeling empty and untethered, hungry and lost.

I haven’t done the field research that author’s like Whippman have, but have read enough from different kinds of sources to fully agree with this finding. I will add this book to my summer reading list. Cuddy then points to the way Aristotle taught us about happiness.

Even Aristotle, one of the first to nominate happiness as the ultimate life goal, conceived of it not as hedonic well-being; it wasn’t about pleasure. Rather, he believed that happiness was about eudemonic well-being — the expression of one’s true nature through “doing what is worth doing.” A reason to get up in the morning. A belief that your life has meaning.

His Greek word was eudaimonia, which is often misinterpreted as [hedonic] happiness – a psychological state of pleasurable feelings. Literally, the word is derived from eu (good) and daimon (guiding supernatural spirit). Daimons came in two varieties: good and bad. The character of one’s life was believed to be influenced by the particular spirits that hung around. The good ones have vanished today as our word, demon, refers only to the bad ones. Flourishing is another way to interpret Aristotle’s “eudaimonia.” I do think he got it right in a general sense, connecting it, not to a momentary feeling, but to the overall character of one’s life, specifically in regard to following a set of virtues. Most important to him were the expression of magnanimity, wisdom, justice, and true friendship.

I, also, view flourishing (eudaemonia) as the most important intentional end of human existence. Flourishing is an emergent quality, showing up when one has been living a life of meaning and intention, in essence of taking care of his or her worlds. It means being true (or caring) to more than one’s friends, but also to oneself, to others with whom one has relationships, to the planet (our home), and even to those transcendent domains that are immaterial, but, nevertheless, real to us. All of the words that Aristotle used in describing the good (eudaimonious) life had the context of being connected or related to others. Wisdom and justice depended on how one’s action affected others.

As the quotes above imply, the focus of happiness is inward, not outward as is the case for flourishing. The main theme of the Globe article was that meaning or purpose is the key to a good life. Cuddy provided some data that indicate that people with a higher self-assessment of meaning or purpose actually lived longer that those on the lower parts of the scale. Her advice to us, at the conclusion, was to find purpose in life and follow it. I don’t think that is such great advice because she is pretty broad about what purpose you find, even mentioning hobbies as an example. It matters. Every purpose is not equal. After all, selfish people are just as purposeful as the opposite

Flourishing requires purpose aligned with some form of care, something with an outward focus. Even caring for the self follows an outward arc that bends backwards. The second problem with her advice is that one doesn’t simply find purpose hiding behind one’s rib cage or another part of the body. Meaningful purpose comes by deliberate choice,, made by the authentic self. It must be created from nothingness, but in the light of the experience accumulated in the body/brain. In the model of the brain I have been writing about, purpose must come from the right hemisphere, the one that connects the actor to the world.

I was pleased to see the Globe publishing an article that is critical of the emptiness and banality of current cultural values, but not so happy with the lack of depth here. Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist and author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Presence, as she uses it, is all about how you show up in social situations. Much is about how to build self-confidence and “power poses.” That’s not the same presencing as is necessary for flourishing. The kind of presencing needed to flourish depends on how the world shows up to you, not the other way around. Good start, Amy, but looking in the wrong direction.

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