09 June 2011

Human Flourishing - What Is It?

If I’m going to talk about human flourishing and even offer myself up as a “Human Flourishing Consultant,” I suppose I should start with some thoughts on what exactly this concept of human flourishing is. As with so many things philosophical, we can turn to the ancient Greeks for a bit of initial guidance.

Eudaimonia is an ancient Greek word commonly mistranslated as “happiness,” but a more accurate translation would be this term I’m considering, "human flourishing." Etymologically, the word consists of the words eu ("good") and daim┼Źn ("spirit"). Thus, another way to approach the definition is that to exhibit eudaimonia is to have a good spirit.

Eudaimonia was a central concept in ancient Greek ethics, along with the terms arete, most often translated as "virtue," and phronesis, often translated as "practical or moral wisdom." According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it refers to:

those who understand what is truly worthwhile, truly important, and thereby truly advantageous in life, who know, in short, how to live well. In the Aristotelian eudaimonist tradition, this is expressed in the claim that they have a true grasp of eudaimonia.

This is more than just living a happy life, which to me connotes a hedonic lifestyle, one devoted to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. At the same time, it’s also about more than just living morally. One can lead a very moral and upright life without genuinely flourishing in most realms (unless, of course, you assume that not fully utilizing one’s gifts is a moral affront to a divine creator or the universe, an argument that has some merit).

I find it to be a particularly American phenomenon that our society is split between two polar opposites on this spectrum. On the one hand are the ultra-hedonists, who believe that the pursuit of pleasure is indeed the highest end of one’s life. On the other hand are the ultra-moralists, usually but not always of the religious variety (militant liberals can fall in this category also), who believe that pleasure is inherently evil and thus a stumbling block to the best life. Per the latter category, remember that America was settled by a group of people (the Puritans) who were too uptight for the English to put up with.

Another fallacy is that one must have an abundance of material wealth to live well. It’s true that it’s hard to enjoy life when you’re constantly stressed about having enough food, or constantly searching for shelter, or living as a refugee from a war-torn region. But once you have the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter met, you don’t really have to travel much further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to reach the place where eudaimonia can kick in. In fact, eudaimonia may not even be that dependent on material security. I would assert that the extent to which one lives well flows more from how one reacts to one’s circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves.

But there are some “things” that do lead to human flourishing. Chief among those are the attachments we form to other people. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Happiness Hypothesis, a primary external condition of life that can make a person enduringly happier is relatedness, the bonds we form with each other. People live longer, healthier, and happier lives if they have a strong social network, a great group of friends, and a loving partner. As I’ve written before, the one who lives well is the one who loves well.

When it comes to more tangible things, there are also some guidelines to enable our lives to reach their full flourishing potential. As an avid epicure, I’ll use food as an example, beginning again with a quick swipe at American societal trends. Too often we consider food to be at its best when served in enormous and inexpensive portions, without regard to the impact of mega-agri-business on the environment, human workers, or animals. Obviously, anyone seeking to live a life of genuine flourishing must take an ethical approach to his or her food.

Along with food selection, flourishing also requires a mindful approach to food preparation and consumption. You can buy the most humanely and locally raised grass-fed beef available and pair it with heirloom tomatoes harvested by workers paid a living wage, but if you cook the steak until it’s shoe leather and proceed to swallow it down in three minutes flat, trust me, you’re not raising your flourishing quotient.

And that gets back to much of what eudaimonia is about. It’s not only what you do (although that’s part of it), it’s also how you do what you do. You may be familiar with the Buddhist proverb:

                Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
                After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Sometimes our ability to change our external circumstances is constrained by forces beyond our control. That’s not to excuse inaction where we can make a positive change; that’s simply an acknowledgement that we can’t make everything perfect. Our responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, however, are always within our control, and that’s another key to human flourishing.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to say about this topic, and I plan to do so in subsequent articles. Hopefully these initial thoughts will give you something to ponder for now, and start you on the road to enhancing your own human flourishing.