Since it doesn’t make many scientists happy to study something as simple and straightforward as happiness directly, they elect to study the Greek version instead: eudaimonia. The best translation for eudaimonia is probably “human flourishing.” And perhaps the best way to happily study flourishing is to accentuate the negative – examine a few things that inhibit or block full blossoming.
The Frenzy of Renown
Many of us think that fame will make us happy. Admittedly, I fall into this trap from time to time. I want 50 million people to subscribe to this blog and read it faithfully, even adoringly. And after that, 100 million. Then a billion. Enough to get me on the cover of Time as their person of the year. But I also recognize that fame, once the novelty wears off, becomes a giant pain in the ass. That realization frees me up to ask a more basic question: who/what is it that wants to be famous. Might it be someone with a bit of an ego problem? Not famous enough in his own heart? That’s a question probably worth considering. But then what? Assuming there are some missing ingredients, some basic lack, what is a fame junkie to do?
In my early thirties I worked as a counselor at The Country Place. It was a residential treatment center for adolescents, many of whom had little ability to disguise their own feelings of lack. Taking a cue from UMass professor, Sidney Simon, I once devised a treasure hunt for the kids. The “treasure” at the end was a tee-shirt that read: “I Am Lovable and Capable.” Somewhere along the line these kids had missed being delivered that message. And while it took more than a tee-shirt slogan to instill it at that late date, every experience they had that repeated and reinforced that essential message began to work to gradually change the wiring in their brains. That slogan began to change the wiring in my own brain as well.
But that IALAC lack of awareness missed a deeper point (notice that it’s not IALAP – “I am lovable and perfect). It’s a point connected to the fame desireand succinctly articulated in a slogan also suitable for a tee-shirt from Wu Wei Wu. I used to have it hanging on the wall in my workshop at Stanford: “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9% of everything you think and everything you do is for yourself. And there isn’t one.” Now that’s a perspective that, while somehow intuitively rings true, doesn’t quite match my daily experience. I seem to have a self. It wakes up every day and uses my brain and walks around in my body. What am I missing here? I’m not sure, but occasionally I get an expansive glimpse of what Wu Wei Wu is alluding to. It’s very freeing. I no longer have to be “someone.” I can simply be who and how I am in all my complex, dynamic diversity (Big, relaxing outbreath here).
The Taproot of Disdaimonia
I should mention that the self I wake up as most mornings, the one who does have to be someone, also wants to have a lot of money. Even though, by global standards, I am already in the top 5% of world wealth at No. 277,391,305 (if you’re reading this column, the Global Rich List suggests that you are up in that strata as well). And even though a part of me knows from research in happiness economics and the Easterlin Paradox that more money most likely won’t make me more happy, I still want more (Biggy Small’s wisdom – “More money. More problems” be damned). I want more than enough to insure my survival. The thought of being assured I won’t have to live on the street at age 85 sends me into Eudaimonic ecstasy. How much more? A million dollars will do nicely. Except for one thing: in my forties my net worth was that much several times over … and I was miserable (interesting phrase there, don’t ya think: “net worth”). Each day was spent wondering how I could get more as a safety net in order to have a cushion to protect what I already had. Little did I realize, rather than eudaimonia, I was pursuing pure hellish misery.
So, what’s the way out of this Disdaimonic Hell? Stay tuned. Our unfolding neurology holds more than a few clues.