Original article was published on Deep Learning on Medium
I stumbled upon this website today, as I often do lurking around as an anonymous intruder, latching onto the invisible corners of the universe. I dove in deeper, shutting out the world, to try to solve its problems in isolation, devoid of the pain that the light of day brings. Deconstructing reality through the lens of my constructed fantasy.
In standard fashion, my fingers sharply cut the surfaces of my keyboard as if google would be my savior.
Google: “What is my purpose?”
As if google could answer all my questions; to answer my own question, google can. The screen was flooded with the latest and greatest resources. I found myself sifting through philosophical schpeal, self-help books, and inspirational quotes. I was unsatisfied. Procrastinating and consuming instead of trying and experiencing. An endless encyclopedia, giving me partial satisfaction, but not really moving the needle.
Suddenly, a word caught my eye, Eudaimonia. I clicked forward and my curiosity led me to www.eudaimonia.com. The only text that creepily popped up on the screen was:
“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind — driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.”
I was taken aback and quickly closed the window, almost as if I had seen something I shouldn’t. But being the sign seeking person I am, I was sold enough to actually do all the research to try to unsell myself, only to become more sold. Eudaimonia is my purpose. Thanks google.
Happiness < Eudaimonia
The pursuit of well-being is historic. It’s universal really.
Consensus has rendered happiness equivocal to well-being, its in vogue and boy have we dressed it up. Let’s just say that the runway for life is short, and the list of things to experience long.
So, I have made a decision to excuse myself from the pursuit of happiness and instead pursue something that is less tempting and more temporal, a concept defined by the ancient Greeks as Eudaimonia. I must admit, I am somewhat late to the show, some 2400 years or so, but I would at least like to think that I am fashionably late.
So here it is, my official resignation. I do realize that my decision comes with its share of consequences, but at least I can sleep soundly knowing that inevitable pain is no longer my enemy, but rather my disguised champion. Looking to teach me, not hurt me.
Happiness is trending, but eudaimonia remains to be timeless. It’s the black and white to Coco Chanel and red to Christian Louboutin. Couture that transcends time.
The Origins of Eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia was first identified in the Nicomachean Ethics, a major philosophical contribution to the science of wellbeing by Aristotle. In its simplest form, eudaimonia has been mistakenly likened to happiness, but fulfillment is its truest definition. Aristotle proposed that the true equilibrium of well-being was eudaimonia, not happiness, something only achievable by a virtuous dedication to excellence. A rational, rather than emotional activity of pursuing ‘what is worthwhile in life’.
“Well-being is not so much an outcome or end state as it is a process of fulfilling or realizing one’s daimon or true nature — that is, of fulfilling one’s virtuous potentials and living as one was inherently intended to live.”
In search of the good (well-being) Aristotle was really in search of the highest good (eudaimonia) which he condensed into three definitions:
1. It is desirable for itself
2. It is not desirable for the sake of some other good
3. All other goods are desirable for it’s sake
Eudaimonia quite resembles primary morbid gain. A term used within the medical profession to describe subconscious psychological motivators patients have surrounding their symptoms. Primary morbid gain encompasses internal positive motivators, while secondary morbid gain describes external motivators. If you apply Aristotle’s philosophy to medicine, approaching life through internal, rather than external motivation would be deemed superior to reach wellbeing.
(I find it, nerdily satisfying when different fields describe the same principle in different terminology. Sometimes I feel like professions were created so like-minded people can form a consensus and understanding of the world in a language they can grasp. The overlap between different disciplines seems infinite, but the willingness to acknowledge another definition is quite finite. I don’t think it is necessarily a lack of acceptance, but rather a lack of awareness, a lack of interdisciplinary study that is.)
What is even more profound is that the Greek word for good, or agathon, means “beneficial”, while evil, or kakon means “not beneficial”. A translation that strengthens the idea that no one in this world desires evil or what is “not beneficial” to them. We are all striving towards good, what is “beneficial” to our goals of feeling fulfilled. Happiness has just made the goal seem less self-centered.
The “Happy Pill”.
What distinguishes happiness from fulfillment is suffering. It is indeed possible to be fulfilled and — at the same time — suffer.
Living in the pain-free existence which happiness promotes — is a utopian state of mind, unsustainable and forgettable but more often than not also regrettable. Happiness is an emotion, confined to momentary pleasure, really hedonism, while eudaimonia is a value-based philosophy. In other words, you can see eudaimonia as an entire collection and happiness as a brief look.
Eudaimonia is defined by authenticity; excellence; meaning; and growth, while happiness is defined by an absence of distress; comfort; enjoyment; and pleasure. Now I agree the latter does seem more enticing. Let’s just say I have lived quite an indulgent life the past two years, unintentionally really. Enough to understand that hedonism has its upsides but is not free from sacrifice. Wait, let’s backtrack. I just had a major realization, without any thought I automatically used the word “unintentional” to describe my pursuit of happiness. A perfect crystallization of my experience, it lacked any intention or a greater purpose. I just was. Simply. However, over time, I suffered the consequence of not ever feeling fulfilled, more than momentarily, because I was not reaching my true potential. The pursuit of everything good, resulted in nothing great. I was at the time unwilling to sacrifice something, to gain everything.
Pure happiness, unlike sadness usually lasts for merely 7 seconds. Therefore, hormonally happiness is a short-lived spike, that is near impossible to control genuinely and non-artificially. That is not to say we can’t control our emotions. We can. And we do all the time. Fitting into society requires some degree of self-regulation, happiness included. The human predisposition towards happiness is split: 50% genetics, 40% thoughts, and 10% circumstances. We can train our minds to increase the frequency of spikes, through meditation for example. Or by training our bodies to be physically fit, one of the primary inducers of happiness. Really just increasing the probability of exposure to positive external influencers. But the truth is happiness just does not last, and to change one’s biology seems rather invasive, and counterproductive.
Happiness is an addiction that no drug has been able to induce long term, ecstasy depletes dopamine levels resulting in dips, and anti-depressants downplay emotions. For a long time, anti-depressants have been incorrectly labeled as “happy pills”, but I think should be relabeled to “functioning pills”. because they act on low levels of serotonin, not to create happiness, but rather a functionality.
On the flip side, fulfillment though challenging to achieve is not impossible. When deconstructed into small steps, it becomes quite manageable to tame. So instead of controlling emotions, I want to start controlling my life, and by doing so hopefully, the side effect will be an increased frequency of feeling happy. Happiness will keep reappearing, but waiting for happiness, is like waiting for life.
Okay, enough talk about something that results in nothing and onto something that results in something… fulfillment.
Traveling down the rabbit hole of happiness, I stumbled upon quite a profound novel called The Courage to be Disliked, which metaphorically and rhetorically captures the essence of Adlerian psychology.
Adler is not as widely recognized as Jung and Freud, but as he self-asserted “if my school of thought disappears that means it has become commonplace and therefore merely accepted”. Something he would be more than pleased by.
The reason I bring up Adler is that progress is quite an essential element to fulfillment, if not the only. Adlerian psychology is deeply rooted in teleology (the study of the purpose of a given phenomenon rather than its cause), in contrast to classical Freudian psychology which references aetiology (the study of causation).
Adler argues that by focusing on aetiology (past causes), we will never be able to progress within teleology (present goals). He draws up a brilliant example of a sick patient seeking the guidance of a doctor. Instead of prescribing a solution, the doctor instead explains the causation. The patient walks away uncured. Seems simply wrong in this context, right? Yet, surprisingly most psychologists and psychiatrists take this stance, focusing on the cause to shift the responsibility away from us, rather than the present goal, in this case, “curing a cold”. Adler emphasizes that the trauma, in this case, “the cold” does exist and is very real for the individual experiencing the trauma, but the cause is unimportant to progress. He is too impatient for determinism and claims that an individual can indeed overcome their past traumas, otherwise, the entire world would be endowed in a lot of strange behaviors, that people with traumas should possess, but in reality, don’t. He claims that if that were to be the case, then every person who has ever experienced trauma cannot change. Their past controls the present, and the cause controls the effects. Which can definitely be true, but is not beneficial to our wellbeing.
The novel continues to give the example of a person who chooses to stay reclused from society. “Your friend is insecure, so he can’t go out. Think about it the other way around. He doesn’t want to go out, so he’s creating a state of anxiety”. In other words, we align our reality with what our goal is. This goal may be harmful, but it is still true.
In other words, to be fulfilled we must decide to take ownership of our lives, even if we believe in determinism (which I do btw). Everything in life is a solvable game, each move comes with a certain upside and a certain sacrifice, it’s up to us to choose the path with the most beneficial outcome based on our current goals. Therefore, I choose instead to believe in free will, because life becomes more solvable in my mind, and really that is all that matters for my experience on this planet.
Fulfillment is simply a “golden mean” between excess and deficiency. Some of life’s most valuable undertakings require sacrificing contentment in pursuit of something much bigger than one’s hedonistic tendencies.
“Quality of life derived from the development of a person’s best potentials and their application in the fulfillment of personally expressive, self-concordant goals.”
So What is Enough?
Plato stopped at acting with virtue, while Aristotle went so far as to emphasize that you also have to intend to be virtuous. Plato outlined the four virtues to access fulfillment:
Temperance — or self-regulation, to avoid the vices caused by excess
Courage — to stand up for what we believe is right and good
Justice — a social consciousness to maintain societal order
Wisdom — the pursuit of knowledge.
Deep Work by Cal Newport highlights the importance of gaining control of our attention. Our ability to monopolize our attention may be one of the most valuable skills in modern society because it is so extremely rare. Valuable in both an economic and personal sense.
He brings up a study conducted by Gallagher, who discovered that “skillful management of attention is the sin queue non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of our experience”. Basically, our brain is wired to construct a world view based on what we pay attention to. So, what should we steer our attention to find fulfillment?
The answer: deep work and deep relationships.
Let’s begin by addressing deep work. Flow state has been celebrated throughout history, and continuously reappears in religious, philosophical, spiritual, and scientific contexts, especially Daoism and Buddhism. A flow state is the attainment of hyperfocus or the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity according to Wikipedia. Flow state is separate to happiness, happiness is a consequence, but the flow state can be simultaneously painful and happy.
Csikszentmihalyi pioneered flow states and positive psychology, by tracking emotions in real-time using what was then high-tech, a buzzer. The buzzer would ring at random times throughout the trial and the participants wrote down what they felt in the moment. The results contradicted popular opinion, as research usually does, demonstrating that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” In other words, jobs are actually more enjoyable than free time, because the presence of tangible goals, feedback loops, and challenges pose a more structured approach to fulfillment than the free time where the lack of structure makes it near impossible to know how to reach the goal of being fulfilled. I don’t particularly enjoy this finding, because it contradicts my love of freedom and lack of structure. But, freedom I have come to discover is not about what you do, its more about how you think and feel, and structure is just the simplest way to get what you want. So, why try to complicate something, so you can stay in the realm of comfortable possibilities instead of calculated progress.
Learning Skills > Finding Meaning
In a post-enlightenment era, we have tasked ourselves to find what is meaningful and what is not. The amount of hours I have spent pondering the meaning of life is laughable and the progress is pretty close to insignificant. Dreyfus and Kelly, chairs of philosophy at Harvard, argue that Descarte is responsible for dethroning gods and kings, and crowning individuals as their own gods. Metaphysical thinking freed us from the reigns of a higher power, and we were left to think for ourselves, a very scary thought for 99% of the world. In this process, we lost the order and structure which religion and monarchy enforced, limitation actually gave us meaning. Now, we as individuals have to define meaning, and that is near impossible.
Which is why most people prefer to suffer under authority, because that is easier, and requires less sacrifice than responsibility. Most of us inevitably choose to be employed, to be educated by institutions, to be governed, to support a social system, to pay taxes and it works, because that is how we work. Just look at Scandinavia. Choice may even be the wrong word, we opt into maybe is more accurate, because most people just don’t want to think about it, the query is too painful. In other words, most of us are paying a really high cost to avoid having to rule our own lives. A few people do choose to take control of their life, those people are the ones that are in positions of authority, power and financial prosperity, but they definitely have to deal with problems much greater in size than the average and they will most definitely experience the pushback from the 99% not willing to take that risk of trying. Now, I used to arrogantly call these people sheep, but now instead I see it as a part of human nature and crucial part of a functioning society, authority, and structure that is. Our brains are simply wired to crave structure, some more than others. Having authority in many different forms gives us meaning. That is what is important, not if you are employed or not.
Dreyfus and Kelly state “that it is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate a skill of discerning the meaning that already exist”.
A Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Well-being was created in a study by Waterman. Eudaimonia was described as the following:
“Knowing who you really are.”
“Developing your unique skills and potentials.”
“Using these potentials to fulfill your life goals.”
The people that had that scored one’s on the EWB had the following qualities:
A sense of meaning and purpose in life;
Enjoyment derived from activities that are ‘personally expressive’;
Intense involvement in activities related to life goals;
Perceived development of best potentials;
Investment of significant effort — towards achieving excellence.
Eudaimonia is a Continous Process.
Freedom is when you are no longer a slave to what Kant calls your inclinations, or desires. Eudaimonia gives us access to our greatest self and our true potential, something far more interesting than happiness can ever grant us. The endeavors worth pursuing are those that may enervate us, break us down, and crush our passion, but in the end, we will come out stronger, if not more resilient and wise. We will do ourselves the justice of excellence. A virtue that goes far beyond human awareness.