What is Eudaimonia and why should it matter to you?
In today’s political, social and economic climate, (shall I say the change in climate) it’s worth investigating and understanding everything you can do to take better care or yourself.
I have had a fascination with meaning and purpose for most of my life. I knew that it was important. I had this very deep visceral feeling that I needed to pursue it. Until recently, I couldn’t really explain why. But the benefits are presenting themselves…
Research increasingly suggests that meaning and purpose is important for health and well-being. And meaning and purpose are closely connected to eudaimonic well-being (EWB).
Traditionally there are two philosophical approaches to wellbeing. Hedonic well-being(HWB) and Eudaimonic well-being (EWB). HWB emphasises physical pleasures, appetites, instinctive needs and self-interests. It defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment, pain avoidance and short term happiness. Aristotle believed this makes us slaves of our desires and positive emotional experiences.
EWB focuses on meaning, purpose and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person follows their true nature, calling or ‘daimon’. Aristotle believed humans thrive when they fulfil their true nature. Long term life satisfaction is found here.
Hedonic pleasure or happiness is often a by-product of eudaimonic actions. But it doesn’t work the other way around.
EWB (eudaimonia) refers to the subjective experiences associated with living a life of virtue in pursuit of a higher purpose or calling.
A study by Ryff (2018) illustrated that those who score high on EWB, (those who have purpose in life) experience a number of positive health outcomes:
- Better sleep
- Improved cognitive function
- Lower risk for CVD and diabetes
- Lower risk for neuro-degenerative disease (dementia)
- Lower risk for various types of cancers
- Lower risk for disability
- Lower risk for premature death
- More likely to be pro-active and embrace preventative health services and utilize resources at their disposal.
Dr Iain McGilchrist stated: “People who report being happy but have little or no sense of meaning, have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity like loneliness, bereavement or poverty”
Research by Telzer et al. (2014) and Heller et al. (2013) indicate that higher levels of EWB compared to HWB may work as prevention against depression, stress, and burnout.
Eudaimonia emphasizes meaning-making, self-realization and growth, quality connections to others, self-knowledge, managing life, and marching to one’s own drum. These qualities are of particular importance today in the confrontation with significant life challenges.
If you want to know the background, history and psychology, keep reading.
If you want to know the science, skip to “Scientific findings”
If you want to know what the outcome is, skip to “So what?”
History and psychology (Ancient Stuff)
In a paper published by Ryff (Institute on Aging/Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison) she brings our attention to that what science is now revealing that echoes the Greek philosophers.
If Aristotle was here, now, he would have said: “I told you so…”
Before we look at what the current science suggests around these dimensions of wellbeing, it’s interesting to extract and review the connections to “eudaimonia” that Aristotle wrote about.
Aristotle was posing an answer to the fundamental question of human existence: namely, “How should we live?” In reaching for the “highest of all human goods achievable by human action,” Aristotle mentioned happiness, but underscored that it was not some obvious and plain thing like pleasure, wealth, or status. He said, the highest of all human goods was activity of the soul in accord with virtue. It was in elaborating the highest of all virtues that Aristotle got to the heart of eudaimonia, which he saw a realization of one’s true potential – achieving the best within one’s self.
In his book, Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism DL Norton framed eudiamonism as an ethical doctrine in which each person is obliged to know and live in truth with his daimon, a kind of spirit given to all persons at birth. It is a journey of progressively actualizing an excellence consistent with innate potentialities. Norton was following in the footsteps of Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kierkergaard, Jung and Maslow. This is about the individual’s search for his/her place in the bigger scheme of things.
Eudaimonia embodies the great Greek imperatives of self-truth (know thyself) and self-responsibility (become what you are). Reflecting on the research there are obvious parallels to Aristotle’s characterization of eudaimonia – the highest good – as self-realization, played out individually, each according to personal abilities, strengths and talents.
The above figure identifies the six key components of the Ryff(1989) model. Below is a summary of how each dimension of well-being draws on multiple underlying conceptions that make up EWB.
Autonomy: Emphasizes independent, self-determining, and self-regulating qualities of the person. Do you show resistance to enculturation? Do you follow your conviction or do you follow the crowd? Do you have in internal locus of evaluation? Do you look inside or to those around you for approval? Do you feel delivered from or dependent on convention? Are you free from or captivated by the norms that govern everyday life?
Environmental Mastery: Refers to the ability to choose or create environments suitable and conducive to your needs. Can you manipulate and control complex environments and actively participate in changing the surrounding world through mental and physical means? Do you affect your environment or does your environment affect you? Are you an active participant or a passive recipient?
Personal Growth: This is all about self-realization and achieving personal potential. Do you see life as an ongoing opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve yourself over time towards becoming all that you are capable of? Are you actualizing your potential or letting it go to waste? Are you realizing your true self? Do you confront new challenges and obstacles in order to mould yourself into a stronger person? Or do you take the easy way by avoiding difficulty, discomfort, and suffering?
Positive Relations with Others: Do you have the ability to love others? Without personal gain? Do you have strong feelings of empathy and affection for all human beings and the capacity for great love, intimacy, deep friendship, and close identification with others? Or do you find it difficult to show love, empathy and affection?
Purpose in Life: Do you have a sense of purpose and meaning? Do you feel your life is intentionally contributing to something? Can you face significant adversity or challenge through finding/creating meaning amidst suffering?
Self-Acceptance: Do you have a positive regard towards yourself? Have you completely and fully accepted all of yourself, including your past? Have you acknowledged and come to terms with your dark side? This form of self-acceptance is deeper than standard views of self-esteem because it involves awareness and acceptance of personal weaknesses as well as strengths.
Scientific findings (Geeky stuff)
Empirical findings suggest meaning making and self-realization increases your capacity to maintain high well-being in the face of socioeconomic difficulties, the challenges of aging, and in dealing with life limitations, challenges and setbacks (trauma, disease, loss, retrenchment or retirement).
Moreover, those who sustain or deepen their well-being as they deal with adversity, show better health profiles. This is determined and revealed by how meaning is made and personal capacities are realized in the confrontation with challenge and adverse conditions.
The underlying neural and genetic mechanisms – How does this work?
- Individuals with higher levels of EWB responds more logically and less emotionally to negative stimuli. Those with higher levels of purpose recovered faster from negative stimuli. They also showed reduced amygdala (fear, anxiety, etc.) activation and were slower to evaluate such information as negative.
- There is a link between high levels of EWB and the activation of reward circuitry (goal pursuit and achievement). This results in lower cortisol (stress hormone) release, illustrating the interplay between EWB and stress hormones.
- Higher levels of EWB are linked to greater volume of grey matter (insular cortex). This part of the brain handles the higher order functions.
- EWB is linked to gene expression, specifically the down-regulation of pro-inflammatory genes. High hedonic well-being is associated with increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. EWB thus appears to convey health-related benefits related to gene expression not evident for HWB.
So What? (The good stuff)
It really means that DOING good is better than FEELING good. This research has demonstrated that if you are happy but have no sense of meaning, you will have similar gene expression patterns as someone who is chronically ill.
You can improve your health, quality and quantity of life by incorporating meaning and purpose in your daily activities. This can prevent psychological and physical illness, distress and of course, meaninglessness.
Life brings about many adversities, and especially today we are going through challenging times. Loss or roles, loss of loved ones, stress, fear, isolation, disease, setbacks and limitations can all increase vulnerability to depression and more disease. One way to buffer yourself against this is the promotion of meaning and purpose.
Having this approach frames encounters with adversity as catalysts that could fuel deepened experiences of personal growth, self-acceptance and self-realization.
By taking on this frame and incorporating meaning you will be empowered to see life as a journey where chaos and challenges have some value and purpose. It gives you a powerful framework for dealing with life’s problems. Facing and climbing your mountains will transform you. It will help you to establish order and mould you into a stronger, healthier, fitter, braver and more resilient version of yourself.
Where can I get this stuff?
Meaning and purpose isn’t something you pick up at the shopping center or pharmacy. You don’t find it on Netflix, Google, social media or even download from the app store. There is no instant or quick fix for this.
Meaning is not found or stumbled upon. It’s created.
I make use of this Keep Thriving pyramid to restructure the lives’ of clients to enhance meaning and purpose:
Some people can implement this by themselves, others may find it very beneficial to work through this process with a Meta-Coach.
Having purpose is not a fixed trait, but a modifiable state. It can be developed through the above strategies that help you engage in meaningful activities, environments, people and behaviours. This process requires introspection and dialogue, then a commitment to act.
Conversation alone is not enough, you need to take action. It entails personal growth, self-acceptance, positive relationships, autonomy, new activities, exploring new territory, expanding your perspective and having the humility to acknowledge that you don’t know it all and that it’s ok to ask for help.
The key to a healthier, motivated, productive, and more fulfilling life isn’t knowing the meaning of life — it’s building meaning into your life. One day at a time.
Meaning is created not found.
*This is an excerpt from the book: Keep Thriving.
For more information on the book or to understand how you can build meaning and purpose into your life, please connect with us.
About the author: Reinhard Korb is a Meta-coach and integrates neuroscience, psychology, epigenetics and lifestyle for optimal health, performance, engagement and productivity. As the founder of Keep Thriving, he has facilitated and helped organisations and individuals actualize their potential.