How a Cottage Industry of Academic Articles Define Our Better Selves
We have wars, refugees, immigration problems, malevolent dictatorships, overly zealous religious groups, terrorists, poverty, drug addiction, violent crime, and climate-change issues in more than enough places worldwide, although, from an historical perspective, the doom and gloom are not as prevalent. Still, our best version of human blossoming and well-being has a long way to go. In other words, we still gotta whole lotta of work to do to become better human beings.
What can we do about it? In my armchair, autodidactic, philosophical and psychological studies, one word always comes up when thinking about how humanity can get better, quicker: eudaimonia. Here I attempt to synthesize what I’ve learned about eudaimonia from some of the academic papers I’ve read.
Reading too many overbearingly esoteric academic papers can make you crazy, but it’s also a worthwhile effort to pursue if you are patient and can figure out how to slice and dice the most important descriptive elements and the most consistent and proven ideas and theories related to any topic of interest you may be studying.
I personally like to define eudaimonia very simply with two words: “know thyself,” professed by both Socrates and Plato – and even further back into pre-Socratic times. However, Aristotle is most always noted as having invented and popularized a deeper philosophical understanding of eudaimonia, although it’s more complicated than that.
Leading scholar of what’s called “eudaimonic well-being” (EWB), University of Wisconsin-Madison Psychology Professor Carol D. Ryff, and many other academic scholars, frequently write about the meaning of eudaimonia, often referring to Artistotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. In a March 2018 article, Well-Being With Soul: Science in Pursuit of Human Potential, published in the journal Perspectives of Psychological Science, Ryff writes:
For Aristotle, the highest of all human goods was activity of the soul in accord with virtue. The key task in life is thus to know and live in truth with one’s daimon, a kind of spirit given to all persons at birth. Eudaimonia embodied the Greek imperatives of self-truth (know thyself) and striving toward an excellence consistent with innate potentialities (become who you are). These ideas deepened this philosophical significance of the new approach to psychological well-being.
In the introductory chapter of the over-priced, but well-informed, 2016 academic textbook, Handbook of Eudaimonic Well-Being, Editor Joar Vittersø, from UiT The Arctic University of Norway, cites scholars who explain how “Aristotle didn’t originate the concept of eudaimonia. It was included in the Greek vocabulary hundreds of years before he was born. Actually, Aristotle never seemed particularly interested in the etymology of eudaimonia and the term had little influence on his thinking.” Vittersø then lists 41 different scholarly definitions of eudaimonia – calling them a “small convenience sample,” adding that the task of explaining what EWB means “has turned into something of a conceptual cottage industry.”
The Handbook also describes what it refers to as the “big three” theoretical concepts for understanding EWB (there are many more): One is Ryff’s six-factor model, first published in 1989 (see previous post); another theoretical concept was proposed in 1984 by Psychology Professor Emeritus at The College of New Jersey Alan S. Waterman; and the third comes from University of Rochester Psychology Professors Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci. As an extremely brief description, Waterman’s theories were all about fostering a sense of personal identity, becoming self-actualized in the Maslovian sense, having a strong internal locus of control over one’s overall life, and practicing principled and moral behavior. Ryan and Deci came up with their “Self-determination theory,” which is essentially based on autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They also point to behaviors related to intrinsic motivation, integrity, and life satisfaction (or well-being). All of these researchers (and many others) also write extensively about hedonism, or Hedonic well-being (HWB) as it compares and contrasts to eudaimonia, which is a whole other area of study (and confusion).
So where does all this take us? In some respect, I feel all this talk about edaimonia is superfluous. I think the vast majority of adults already fully understand the basic tenets for living eudaimonically – that knowing who you are; being the master of your fate; engaging in activities that bring out and utilize your most fertile talents; and pointing your energies toward self-transcendent, for-the-greater-good, intrinsically rewarding activities will make you a happier, more fulfilled human being who can die in peace having known that you lived your life with a keen eye toward its just and honorable potential. And whether or not you feel that you succeeded does not matter – what matters is the pursuit. The pursuit ultimately brings great joy and well-being as long as you keep trying, regardless of the outcome.
The bottom line: If more people continue to pursue the basic ideals espoused under the banner of eudaimonia, the world will continue to become a better place – which takes me back to the solution to the retrogressive-oriented first paragraph of this article. As Ryan and Deci noted in their 2001 article, On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being:
Perhaps the concern of greatest importance, not only for psychological theorists, but also for humanity, is the study of the relations between personal well-being and the broader issues of the collective wellness of humanity and the wellness of the planet. It is clear that, as individuals pursue aims they find satisfying or pleasurable, they may create conditions that make more formidable the attainment of well-being by others. An important issue, therefore, concerns the extent to which factors that foster individual well-being can be aligned or made congruent with factors that facilitate wellness at collective or global levels.
Although published 17 years ago, their sentiments are timeless.