Thursday, December 25, 2014

Moving from the thin idea of “Happiness” to the classical pursuit of Eudaimonia

I found the article below over a year ago on a blog I occasionally frequent and found myself again contending with the notion of “happiness” in our Western, American “thin” manner (myth) of thinking. The more I hear people mention the idea of happiness, I recognize that they are often referring to a cheap positive psychology that does not take into consideration the seriousness of suffering, intellectual pursuit, nor an awareness of the harsh realities that surround us on a daily basis. For this kind and quality of “happiness’ is like the weather, it comes and goes; it may stick around for a brief time, but then move on when a low pressure system pushes in darker, thicker matter.Then what do you do?  

We can better work with Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson’s  notion that one can compare happiness to a muscle that can be developed with practice. Like developing athletic skill, the practice and skill building with respect to “happiness” will result in noticeable gains and growth leading to thicker and more  sustainable awareness of something weightier—a deep gladness and more fully human capacities.  

We can begin to acquire this kind and quality of deepening, sustainable gladness as long as we go back to the classical philosophical understanding of an idea that is often translated “happiness”, eudaimonia (eudaimononia). A more accurate translation is human flourishing which per Aristotle results in virtues that nurture human flourishing (see “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification”).

I interject “Teilhard de Chardin on the Power of Creative Life” as a way of illustrating with imagery the level of “practice” necessary to create human flourishing.[1]  (The bold face terms below in the shared article are interjected as connecting imagery.)
Fire kindles life—
    identify . . .

Rhythm of reality:
     tireless thought
     dilated heart
     intensified toil . . .
Thus labor creates—
          purify affections
          remove opacities
                that impede the light

Here are 10 exercises provided by Randy Taran, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Project Happiness.[2] I have linked terms from the above imagery in verse to emphasize the profound practices, which without this linkage, they could be easily translated into cheap happiness (my hunch) versus the deeply sought reality of eudaimonia or human flourishing.

1. Know Your Strengths: Ask 1 or 2 people who know you well and care about you what they see as your 3 greatest strengths. Do the same for them. Then find ways to use those strengths every day.   Adopt

2. Choose your Mindset: When something bad happens you can either choose to put yourself down and succumb to the "inner critic" or recognize that the "inner critic" is trying to get a foothold. Instead, look into what there is to learn from the situation. Let's say a presentation didn't go well. You can either say: "I'm always bad at this type of thing" (Dr. Carol Dweck calls this the fixed mindset) or: "Next time I'll prepare and practice more." (The growth mindset) 
Which perspective will you choose?  Assume (a virtue)

3. Gratitude: Before you go to sleep, think of three things that you are grateful for: a good conversation with a friend, a yummy dinner, finding that thing you thought you lost ... whatever it is – whether small or large. Believe it or not, this simple acknowledgement will actually change your perspective -- and your brain!  Model

4. Clean your Lens: People that look at life through anger often encounter anger in others. By the same token, happy people tend to bring out more happiness in others and attract more of the good stuff into their lives. Keeping your lens clear by being on the lookout for happiness [signs of eudaimonia] makes it show up in the most unexpected places.  Remove opacities

5. Know your Happiness Triggers: Think of the top 5 times in your life that you have felt happy and figure out the reason why these situations were "happiness triggers." Which provided short term happiness, and which ones give more long term meaning to your life? Try adding more happiness triggers into your daily life. Identify

6. Connect: Share an experience with a friend; tell each other the best thing that happened last week and why. Relationships rule. Dilated heart

7. Altruism: Do something nice for someone else. The fastest way to make yourself happy is to make others happy. Purify affections

8. Affection: Hug someone or be hugged, pet your pet, hold hands, cuddle. Intensified toil (“Hugs” is a simple way to point to the practice of touch physically and emotionally; perhaps compassion)

9. Take it down a notch: SIMPLIFY! Instead of multitasking, put one LESS thing into your day!  Purify affections

10. Remember your Body: Give your body a break. Walk it around, give it some real food that has not been turned into a sugar puff, pretzel or processed creation. Get some sleep -- your mood, mind and body will smile.  Remove opacities that impede the light

[1] Daniel Seifert, Based on ¶ 45 of “Pensées” in Hymn of the Universe by Teilhard deChardin, 2012.