We Know that Success won’t make you happy (link article), but what should we aim for? Maybe the ancient Greek concept of Eudaimonia can help us out.
What is Eudaimonia?
Eudaimon, comes from the Greek “eu” meaning good, and “daimon” meaning spirit. However, the meaning of eudaimonia in ancient literature is different. (The Stoics defined it a bit differently, as did Epicurius, but I will focus on the definition used by Aristotle.) Eudaimonia is sometimes translated as happiness, sometimes as flourishing. There is a problem with either one of these translations when taken separately.
Eudaimonia is not happiness, in part because happiness is subjective while eudaimonia is objective (there can be no argument over me being happy, if I think I am happy then I am happy, while there can be disagreement about whether or not someone is living the eudaimon life), and partly because eudaimonia runs much deeper than happiness does. You can be happy one day but unhappy another. If you are living in eudaimonia one day, you will be living in eudaimonia still tomorrow. Eudaimona is not an emotion, but an adjective you apply to a life.*
Flourishing comes a bit closer. Lets think about what it means for a plant to flourish: it grows quickly and strongly, without deficiencies or failures, it looks good and photosynthesizes well. And for a plant to truly flourish, there is more than for a plant to succeed at being a plant, but for it to succeed in being a successful plant. When we apply this analogy to humankind, we get closer to understanding eudaimonia. To live the eudaimon life is to flourish as a person: to realize potential, to be happy, to work hard.
How to Achieve Eudaimon
How are we to achieve eudaimonia then? Aristotle’s view was that to achieve the eudaimon life, we had to have “arete”, or excellence. “Arete” is not excellence in any particular area, but general excellence. In man the requirements of arete are: excellence of mind, athletic excellence, and most importantly, moral excellence.
How are we to achieve this moral excellence? Aristotle listed 12 virtues, each of them lying as the middle-ground between an excess and a deficiency of character. For example, the virtue of Courage lies between Brashness (excess) and Cowardice (deficiency). Wit lies between Baffoonery (exceess) and Boorishness (deficiency). Below is the full list of character traits and virtues. I have edited them to make them make sense. In the original there are two senses of Liberality, the other being Magnificence. However in English these are hard to translate, so I have removed the duplicate.
|Attitude to Pleasure||Gluttony||Temperance||Insensibility|
|Getting and Spending||Prodigality||Liberality||Meanness|
|Anger||Irascibility||Due Patience||Lack of Spirit|
|Indignation||Entitled||Righteous indignation||Malicious Enjoyment|
How Can We Apply this?
At the age of 20, Ben Franklin decided that he needed a system to track and improve his character. As such, he listed 13 virtues he wished to see in himself and tracked each day which of them he expressed. Each week he would focus on one of the virtues, and the next week he would focus on the next one, and so on until he reached the first one again, and then repeat. Every time he failed to embody a virtue, he would but a black dot on in the table he was using to track his behavior. The goal was by the end of the week to have a blank sheet.
This doesn’t just need to be for virtues, this can be for habits you are trying to build too. Currently I’m tracking whether or not I meditate and stretch each day, as well as how often I journal.
Here you can find the 12 Aristotlian virtues, here you can find Benjamin Franklin’s 13.