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March 31, 2004

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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.

Posted March 31, 2004 at 11:33 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins


Though I found this article very interesting, on further reflection I'm starting to question Seligman's assertion that a pharmacology of flow or of meaning is impossible. What about the whole 'entheogen' phenomenon, where people have these tremendous life-changing experiences while under the influence of psychedelics? (A pretty-good article at or just google entheogen.) Isn't this starting to approximate a pharmacology of meaning? Our current prejudice against these substances notwithstanding, there seems to be something else going on than just pleasure. Or would anyone like to make the case that the Good Friday experiment was essentially the equivalent of getting drunk at the pub?

Posted by: Matt on April 1, 2004 at 05:46 PM

Here's a story on the Good Friday experiment, courtesy of our own St. Petersburg Times.

Judging from this description, the proximate effect of taking psychedelic drugs is indeed a) not always pleasant, and b) not very much like getting drunk at the pub.

But I'd argue that the ultimate effect is basically the same: a chemical is messing with your brain.

And if you subscribe to Seligman's notion that the root of meaning is a connection to something larger than the self, it's not clear how any chemical messing with your brain in any way could ever deliver anything really authentic -- especially if you think 'connection' requires actual participation w/ the wonders of the world, not mere recognition of them.

Posted by: Robin on April 1, 2004 at 06:11 PM

I'm printing it out now. Thanks for the suggestion :)

I studied 'Flow' and other ideas of positive psychology several years ago (in school - now Im graduated and in the 'business world'). I love the ideas, and I love how the pleasant life is distinguished from the good life, which is also distinguished from eudaemonia. While I'm far removed from the study now, I think it helps guide my actions and mindset, and I've found my flow and my peace.

Posted by: aaron on May 5, 2005 at 10:27 AM
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