March 31, 2004
What’s a happy life?
It can be three things, psychologist Martin Seligman says.
There’s the pleasant life: the life full of positive emotions. That’s the life buoyed by sunshine and smiles and, perhaps, Prozac.
There’s also the meaningful life: the life connected to something greater than itself. That’s the life devoted to an insitution, a religion, a family, a looong-term project.
And then there’s this one:
… [E]udaemonia, the good life, which is what Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle meant by the pursuit of happiness. They did not mean smiling a lot and giggling. Aristotle talks about the pleasures of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation. Aristotle is not talking about raw feeling, about thrills, about orgasms. Aristotle is talking about [the new-ish psychological theory of flow], and that is, when one has a good conversation, when one contemplates well. When one is in eudaemonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness is blocked. You’re one with the music.
I’ve been watching these nature documentaries lately and feeling vaguely jealous of all the creatures of the sea. Pardon the tautology, but they behave so naturally. Even fleeing from, you know, ravenous leopard seals, they seem somehow light and free.
And I don’t want to get all anthropomorphic, but that’s how flow feels. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (or Mihaly C., as I call him), the guy who wrote the book on flow, describes it like this:
The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
I love that.
Seligman’s essay isn’t just about eudaemonia; he also talks about a new trend in modern psychology: a push to consider ways to increase happiness, not just ameliorate psychological suffering. It’s really interesting, so go print it out and read it tonight.
Also, Seligman notes:
Aristotle said the two noblest professions are teaching and politics, and I believe that as well.
And I just wanna throw my Snarkweight behind that assessment, too. BUT I am a well-documented Aristotle freak, so I’ll understand if you’re not surprised.