Eudaimonic Happiness

So we are coming to a conception of happiness that differs fundamentally from the storybook version. The storybook conception tells of desires fulfilled; the truer version involves striving toward meaningful goals. Storybook happiness involves a bland idleness; the truer conception involves seeking and purposeful effort. Storybook happiness involves every form of pleasant thumb-twiddling; true happiness involves the full use of one’s powers and talents. John W. Gardner in Self-Renewal

 

From: Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty:

The highest of all human good is the realization of our own true potential.

Thus was born eudaimonic happiness. It is about striving, working hard, purposeful engagement, the kind of effort that may be stressful or even painful in the short run but over the long run brings meaning and a wildly profitable return on investment.

A life of meaning can be kind of a drag: It involves sacrifice, stress, sleepless nights to feed the baby, working long hours to put your child through college, sitting by your wife’s side through the last stages of cancer, visiting your father even though Alzheimer’s has stolen his capacity for a shared memory, a joke, and gentle word.

So what’s the point of meaning, of eudaimonia, anyway? As it turns out, both our minds and our bodies prefer it. Researchers at the University of Rochester tracked some 150 recent graduates, dividing them into those who were seeking intrinsic goals (valuing “deep, lasting relationships” or “helping others improve their lives”) or extrinsic goals, such as wealth, looks, fame. The researchers checked back two years later and found that the young people who achieved their extrinsic, image-related goals fared poorly: They reported more negative emotions like shame and anger, and more physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and loss of energy. The intrinsic set, which valued relationships and personal growth, reported more positive feelings toward themselves and others, and fewer physical signs of stress.

Let’s drill down a little further, into our biology. Our bodies prefer selfless happiness to self-centeredness, and will reward eudaimonia with a longer life. Scientists have discovered that people who pursue eudaimonic well-being also have lower particular biomarkers for inflammation that have been linked to a number of health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. These purposeful people even had lower cholesterol.

Drill down deeper still, and we find that even our DNA rewards eudaimonic meaning and punishes hedonism…. Those who pursued pleasure more than meaning had the bad genomic fingerprint profile, the one with the dangerous immune response. But those whose dispositions tipped toward eudaimonic well-being had the opposite response to stress: they were protected at a cellular level.

It is better to be good than happy.

Time Alone in the Desert

Aloneness is a vital part of any spiritual path. Tom Brown Jr. in Grandfather

 

Casey (my American Eskimo) and I had two weeks alone in the Sonoran desert. I decided to make the time my personal spiritual retreat—a time for my soul: I got up at 6:00 am, walked in the desert for five miles, exercised under the rising sun as it warmed the air, meditated for 45 minutes twice a day, read three excellent books on consciousness, journaled, studied, ate healthy foods and took some peaceful photographs.

The books I read were: Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunities at Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. Each book added to my knowledge. The Tolle book was especially powerful to me. Many pages spoke to me and my life. I would read and study more of Tolle’s work.

In 2001 I lived on the side of a mountain near Ouray, Colorado for 14 months. I read, wrote essays on life and leadership, grieved some losses and pondered life in the natural hot springs. I consulted enough to pay my bills. I often spent weeks with little human contact. I came face to face with many demons. I felt lonely at times. But I knew the time alone would not last forever and sometimes I have to sacrifice something in order to experience something else. A powerful new vision—now real–evolved from that time alone.

My time in the desert was not all peaceful: I tossed and turned in my bed at night, often woke long before my 6:00 am wake up time and wrestled with ideas and insights from the books I read and my meditations. Once I jumped up: I had to write the ideas that came to me when reading Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. I felt excited when his words provided context for issues I had been struggling to understand for a year or longer. This was a time of inner expansion.

I worked hard to be present. I am a novice at meditation. I began to meditate about 1 ½ years ago. First I sat for 20 minutes a day. Then 45 minutes. At the end of my retreat, I committed to 60 minutes a day. As I meditated, I focused on my breathing. I observed the feelings and thoughts that passed through me. I often asked: “What am I resisting?” I concentrated on my senses while I walked. I admired the blooming flowers—new ones each day—in the Sonoran Desert. I listened to the doves and the quail sing their morning songs. I watched the roadrunners scurry among the cacti. A couple of nights, I sat patiently waiting for the beautiful sun to set below the horizon.

Soon it was time to clean the house and pack our SUV. I was ready to head for home. Casey was ready to come with me wherever I went. My mind was filled with ideas for projects, books to read, blog posts to write and things to do back home. My purpose renewed, I felt alive after a dormant period (See my blog post: Purpose Renewed).

I transitioned with several days in Canyon de Chelly and Canyonlands National Park for some photography. I loved the intensity of my travels and early mornings out in the natural world and days filled with new places and new images. I like contemplation and I like action.

We live better and longer lives with healthy relationships. We do need people. We also need time alone where we can reconnect with ourselves and the natural world, ponder our interconnection with all of life and renew our spirits.

 

Purpose Renewed

Purpose in life is more important than education or wealth in determining long-term health and happiness.

Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

 

My month in a tough alcohol treatment center (1974) was a painful, high anxiety and profound time of spiritual awakenings, moments of metanoia and akin to turning from the shadows to the sun in many Plato’s Caves. I left the hospital a scared, hopeful and humbled young man and began my life of often muddling conscious evolution. My purpose was to stay sober, live true to my values and care for my family.

I next thought of my purpose for my life about 16 years later.

In the early 1990’s, I had a leadership experience that awakened me to the vast dormant and untapped human potential in most organizations. I felt alive as we transformed a major business unit. Results were phenomenal. This experience was the second great expansion of awareness in my life. Treatment had saved my life and this leadership experience changed my life forever. As successes multiplied, so did the fear in others and resistance to us grew. I sensed our work would be destroyed by the dominant culture. I began preparations for my departure.

“I don’t want to leave because I am angry,” I said to Diane Olson, Ph.D. my consultant. “I want a new vision to go toward.” I spent two years working with Diane and consultant John Johnson to develop a new vision for my life, a purpose statement and my core values. The work was hard. I read, pondered and talked with John and Diane frequently.

My purpose:

I live my life as a series of emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventures and I share what I learn with others.

This purpose aligned with my new vision for my life: to complete a Ph.D., to begin to write and to consult with organizations.

I left the company in early 1994. I set out to use myself as my own learning laboratory—that was scary.

I had many emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventures over the next 20 years. I changed my life dramatically. I felt alive and had many peak experiences. I shared my experiences and insights as a writer, coach and consultant.

For the past decade, I’ve had three core strategies in my life:

  • To optimize my physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual health,
  • To partner with Melanie to keep our love alive always and
  • To have meaning and creativity in my life

I am fit and healthy. Melanie and I have a wonderful life together. We feel grateful. But I was aware of an angst in me the last couple of years that I didn’t understand. My feeling of aliveness had dissipated. I felt my life contracting: Retirement had shrunk my involvement in the world and didn’t feel as meaningful as robust work had. People I cared about were dying more regularly. Children were grown and didn’t want or need my experience or guidance. I experienced foreshadowing of physical decline and, as I approached 70 years of age (the entry to old age), I was well aware of where the contraction ultimately led.

Last summer (2015), my older brother got sick and died quickly. This unexpected loss affected me deeply–more than I expected it might. I felt that part of my foundation had cracked. Other losses added to the pain I felt. I wanted to feel differently. I wanted to feel alive again. My third strategy needed renewal.

Trying to repeat the past was the wrong solution. To do nothing would mean I had stopped learning and would lead to the resentment and bitterness that some feel in retirement. I needed something new to learn that would engage my spirit and create positive energy that I could creatively give back to life. I stumbled along seeking what would bring meaning and aliveness back. I needed a new emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventure.

My friend Heather gave me a trial subscription to HeadSpace.com. I decided to try meditation. I began with 20 minutes a day. I had tried meditation over the preceding decades. Unable to sit still, I soon quit. Now I could sit and begin to slow my mind.

I read the book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by John Kabat-Zinn. The book inspired me to expand and deepen my meditation experience. I had a feeling that meditation and consciousness were what I sought to bring meaning and aliveness back in this part of my life. I began to meditate 60 minutes a day. I realized new things about my inner world. I understood that constant, unmanaged and compulsive thought may be as insane as alcoholism. I realized that I had lived much of my life in the past and the future, not in the present moment. I needed to ponder my identity and my attachments. Meditation is much more than I had thought it was. I had much to learn.

In A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle wrote that we each have an inner and an outer purpose. We share an inner purpose: to become awakened (a gradual shift in consciousness). This aligns with my purpose of living a life of inner adventures. Our outer purpose–unique to each of us–is how we live out our inner purpose in the world. Almost every page of this book spoke to me powerfully. I know the feeling from past transformative experiences: I had found a new adventure.  I enter the organic, mysterious and potential-filled world of contemplation and consciousness.

I am a novice again.

I feel alive in the uncertainty of the unknown.

This experience reminded me of something that I knew during my career: My happiness came from the pursuit of noble goals—goals I might never achieve. I felt alive striving for objectives that mattered to me. During those years, I never thought about happiness. I thought about what I would do the next day to move closer to the top of the mountain I was climbing at the time. I realized that in retirement I need that same sense of dedication as a part of my life. All of us do and we will live longer, happier and healthier lives if we have a vibrant sense of purpose.