Eudaimonia

On June 9, 2019, I made the following entry in my journal:  “At exactly 1:30 in the afternoon today, I was overcome by the feeling that I AM HAPPY."  It was a profound realization.   And it changed the way I saw so many things; it not only changed how I saw my life, but it changed how I saw life.  It was the moment that I drew a bright line to distinguish living from existence.

When I say I’m “happy,” I do not mean to suggest that I am some kind of pollyanna — blind to evil, blind to tragedy, putting the best spin I can on injustice, or excusing the rampant inequality and inequity that plague our world.  Nor does it mean that I’ve accomplished or acquired something I want; indeed, wanting what I already have or that fate has willed me, not getting what I (think I) want is key to developing an enduring sense of wellbeing.  The philosopher Epictetus, writing in 135 CE, noted:  “The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals” (Epictetus, The Enchiridion, #48).  From that aphorism I began to reassess so many things — too numerous to recount here.

Most significantly, I gave myself an assignment.  I set out to write an autobiographical paragraph, you know the sort of thing you’d find about the author on the dust jacket sleeve of the book I always say I’m going to write.  I encourage you to try this — don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or spelling, nobody is going to see it but you.  Write whatever comes to mind; just sortof let your thoughts and memories spill onto the page.  When I did this, I was amazed that in telling the story of my life, the narrative consisted of all of the bad things that have happened in it, and I framed them as things that happened to me.  For example, I was run over by a driverless, out-of-control car when I was eight; obviously I did not have a hand in this, it was something that happened to me. All of the highlights of my life’s story were lowlights; and what’s more, I could shirk responsibility for each and every one of them.  There is a difference between accepting fate, and blaming it.  When I read this bio back to myself, I realized that I saw my life, my entire life, as if it was someone else’s fault!

So I had another go at it.  This time, I forced myself to write about good moments, great moments, things I’m proud of, experiences one might call exciting, or just fun, or just satisfying.  And the most astonishing thing soon became very clear — this time ‘round, I was the one who had said or done (or thought) the thing that made me happy!  At my best, I was active, not passive, even in (especially in) receiving fate’s portion.

I wondered if I hadn’t hit on something here, particularly in light of how Epictetus characterized a “vulgar” person (meaning wretched, detestable, unhappy, not someone who habitually uses rude language or is given to socially questionable behavior) as looking without, waiting for happiness (contentment, tranquility, peace-of-mind, etc.) to come from someone not myself or some thing I cannot control (effect).  I seemed to have empirical proof in my two mini-autobiographies of the importance of my role in achieving (perhaps ‘experiencing’ is a better word here) happiness in life given its ephemeral and unpredictable nature.  My goal should not be an “easier” life, but to develop tools and strategies for living the one I’ve got.

From there I realized that to live rather than merely exist meant to take responsibility for my own happiness, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia (in Greek, εὐδαιμονία, it is sometimes translated as 'human flourishing,’ ‘prosperity,' or ‘blessedness’).  I soon adopted what I call my “eudaimonia triangle” to better visualize this insight and how to bring it about in my life:

I differentiate this from the sophomoric concept of “positive thinking” through the necessity of living with areté (in Greek: ἀρετή).  No English word or phrase adequately captures the exact meaning of areté; the closest we can come is 'excellence' or ‘virtue.’  But there is something more to areté which cannot be expressed in words.  For Plato, areté is mainly associated with moral excellence; it is superordinate to specific moral virtues like courage, temperance, justice, and so on — it is something they all share, a special, unnamed quality, their essence if you will.  Aristotle thought that something is excellent when it manifests its unique purpose or telos.  The unique, defining quality of human beings, for Aristotle, that makes them distinct from other creatures, is the capacity for rational thought; human excellence, then, involves the correct use of reason, principally in connection with moral choice.  Combining these two understandings, the goal is not to think positively, but act in a positive way in each situation, which involves seeing the world through the lens of social justice.

One concept I come back to over and over is ‘gratitude.’  I have learned to be grateful, because without gratitude I am prone to start assigning blame for my unhappiness where it does not belong.  As Epictetus points out above, it is from ourselves that we derive benefit, but also harm.  It should be obvious that no one’s life is sunshine and roses and wet puppy dog noses all the time; the question becomes what to do on the proverbial “bad day.”  Here, gratitude plays an important role — not gratitude for things going poorly (I’m not suggesting pessimism as a way of life!), but rather gratitude that a setback, an obstacle, or some other trial or travail is an opportunity when I make the right use of it.  For example, pain and provocation are opportunities to practice virtues like endurance and patience respectively.  This can be hard to remember in the thick of things, and that’s where gratitude comes in.  Rather than curse X, Y, or Z, if I remind myself to be grateful for them I will look to how I might benefit from them.  Easier said than done?  Absolutely!  But essential to well-being.

October 2006 marked the nadir of my life as my health took a dramatic turn for the worse; it was also the beginning of a different way of living for me.  Before that fateful winter, it was as though I had been sleepwalking through life; on the other side of it, grateful to be alive, I began to live.  Now, I am content (I wasn’t always), happy (I wasn’t always), and enjoy my own company (I didn’t always).  Even nadirs have silver linings!  If you stop and look for them.

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