I have recently developed an intense interest in philosophy and through listening to old episodes of The Partially Examined Life I’ve come across the concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. I was drawn to the idea of it because flourishing is not the same as happiness. They are related concepts but to flourish is, to me, something greater than happiness. To me happiness is too temporary of a concept. People who are flourishing are happy, but not all people who are happy are flourishing. Learning about eudaimonia has given me the words to express exactly what it is I am trying to achieve in my life.
Eudaimonia is the good life, or well-being. Eudaimonia is living the good life, an ideal human life. I often wonder what would constitute that ideal human life, how do we achieve it, and how that would differ from a concept of happiness. Human flourishing is something that is innate in all of us, something each of us both want and can achieve, but how? Happiness surely is part of that but so is health, and intelligence, and love, and compassion, right?. These are all things each human can achieve naturally, this is the human condition allowed to express itself without judgment or disturbance.
The ultimate end of human acts is eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it.
Obviously, to start, our basic animal needs must be met, we are animals aren’t we? We need proper food, exercise, and sleep. We are also social animals so we need a group or society to belong to. Within that group we need trust, respect, an order. We have emotional needs too. We need comfort and understanding and we need to express ourselves. And finally, we need to be able to use our brains. We are intelligent and curious creatures and we like to learn and teach. We like to explore, and categorize, and build, and think about things. Any human denied these things will not flourish, period.
So what other parts of our lives must come in to alignment in order for us to achieve eudaimonia?
If we look to the Ancient Greeks we must start with Socrates who thought that virtue, meaning things like self-control, courage, justice, piety, wisdom were all that was required for eudaimonia. Not honor, not riches, just pure virtue. To him the virtues guaranteed eudaimonia. It seems he was a bit frustrated with the people around him fighting and clamoring for riches and honors and caring nothing for obtaining virtue and wisdom.
The obvious argument against all of this is that often times humans want to, and take great pleasure, in being the opposite of virtuous. We want to be selfish and chase power so how can we be happy when we have to control ourselves so much? Well Plato thought that a virtuous persons soul was harmonious and that the the soul of a person who was not virtuous was not. So by being virtuous the soul does not become chaotic and thus a person feels at peace and can achieve eudaimonia.
I think this has a lot to do with moderation. Anything, any human quality, taken to an extreme can cause harm to your inner self. Bravery can become rashness, a conscientious person can become too shameful, and the seeking of pleasures can easily make you selfish and interfere with our basic needs, particularly the social needs. No one would want to be around a person who only seeks pleasure, we all know life is about more than that. We must not deny our own pleasures all the time because doing so would cause us to go to the other end of the spectrum and, again, interfere with our basic needs, but we do have to seek more than easy pleasures and we do have to consider other people.
But then how do we know when to seek pure pleasure and when to seek virtue? Well that brings us to Aristotle who said that part of flourishing is to be fully human and being fully human means is to use the gift unique to humans. One of those gifts is reason and rationality. Aristotle also believed that doing is a requirement for eudaimonia. We must do what is virtuous and excellent and we must do the things that demonstrate our reason and virtue too.
There are more philosophers who touched on eudaimonia but most are long dead now and the world is a different place so what do us modern people have to say about human flourishing? I myself prefer to hear arguments rooted in science or logic rather than religion so while I do not discount that some would believe that The Bible hold the secrets to how a human being might flourish I would have to dismiss it on the grounds that I do not recognize the authority of God. I do however recognize the authority of psychologists. The modern term for eudaimonia could be something like “psychological well-being” the components of which are:
- Personal Growth
- Self acceptance
- Purpose in life
- Environmental mastery
- Positive relations with others
So all of this was quite a long way to say that flourishing means to have the things you need to be able to be the best person you can be and more than that having the emotional and mental facilities to discern what that means and what you ought to do to keep yourself happy and healthy and in harmony with those around you.
Of course it is not that easy, or else we would all be flourishing along happily side by side in a grand utopia, so what is getting in the way? Sometimes the inability for us to flourish, in a traditional sense, comes from reasons outside of our own control. The most obvious reasons are abuse, neglect, or trauma in childhood which leave us emotionally stunted and unable to exercise reason or interact with people around us in meaningful ways. BUT I would argue that through self-awareness and professional help even those people could flourish too.
The tree might have been planted in poor conditions but that does not mean nothing can be done to help and lead the tree to growing big and strong despite its beginnings.
Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of this, I’ve only just started learning about all of it, and I don’t think there is any one way for all humans to flourish, but I do think that we are all more alike than we think and there could be some basic ways in which all of us could begin to find a way toward eudaimonia. I think it is possible for every human to live a happier life but it comes from gaining wisdom, accepting and loving yourself, and doing things that make your soul* feel good. Find the good and find the moderation and you will find the path.
Happiness might be money and wealth and success but eudaimonia is something inside you.
Original image via http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkas:Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575.jpg
*Considering that I am not religious the use of the word soul here is not based in the traditional sense but instead used to mean your “inner you”.