To Aristotle, eudaimonia (where “eu” and “daimon” loosely translate to “good spirit”) was the highest human good. That’s all there is, he said, “doing and living well.” The intervening centuries have fought over what that means—the Stoics limit it to living a morally virtuous life, Epicureans claimed it was doing whatever brings pleasure—and today, we’re left with a term we often overuse and under-think: happiness.
This is not going to prescribe a method of counseling happiness out of sadness (nor is it simplistic enough to presume that one is the opposite of the other). It isn’t about decision-making or control—as in, the way you feel is your choice, so you better make the right ones. I don’t want to propose that the path to a better existence is with a thorough inventory of your life, a catching of your breath, a wiping of tears, a forgetting of the past, a snapping of your fingers, a broad commitment to changing everything, with the cumulative result being a making of things better.
I have no idea what brings each individual happiness, and I can’t pretend to abstractly advise a universal route towards it. Instead, lets explore five of its most broadly corrupting forces.
Failing to be kind. George Saunders is a writer worth reading and fighting. In a recent commencement address to Syracuse, he offered his biggest regret: “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: what I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” Those chances you have to show love or care, simple as they may be? Don’t stand by and let them pass. Let there be no note you didn’t write, no champagne you didn’t buy, no hug you didn’t give.
Power. Let David Mitchell, from The Bone Clocks, tell you why. Says one character to another, “Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers…Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul.” What else is there to say? Find another purpose.
Not truly listening. It is one of the most essential ways to connect, and, despite happy thoughts that like to suggest otherwise, we don’t always get another chance. It’s most beautifully said by Rumi: “The morning breeze has secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep.”
“The morning breeze has secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep.” - RumiTweet It!
Fear. The poet Mary Oliver invites us to begin each day “in happiness, in kindness,” is also guiding here, and is also guiding here through her poem Wild Geese:
"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
How lovely it is to hear and say—'You do not have to be good…'—so try it: come to the edge, let yourself be pushed, and start flying."
Needing reasons. George Mallory was a British mountaineer who died in 1924 while attempting the first ascent of Mount Everest. In a world that perpetually demands or assumes specificity and certitude, he gave a delightfully honest answer when he was asked why he wanted to climb it. “Because it’s there,” he said.
Happiness is a timelessly indefinable virtue—what matters above all is that you find your own version, and live it as deeply as you can. When you first find happiness yourself, you will have more energy to give to others.
Want to make more mindful connections? Come to our workshop on How To Build & Maintain Meaningful Relationships on February 10th!
Joe Stephens is the creator of little hunches, an incubator of creative thought and a place where ideas collide and connect. A firm advocate of restlessness, he’s also an entrepreneur, a lawyer, and an Ironman triathlete working on his first book.
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