We look back at the course of our life and see a linear pathway; but we are faced with a series of multiple proverbial forks in the road when attempting to look forward. The choice we make at any given fork raises several questions. Do we choose based on what seems most important? What makes us happy? Or what fills a certain purpose? The choices we make can be viewed through our lens of personal value.
Have you ever stopped to think about what you value most?
This fundamental question is not a question of details or facts. We are all driven by a certain psychological framing fueled by underlying premises, principles, and values. This psychological framing is reinforced by our social context. Values help to formulate our decisions and underscore our goals, namely those we think correlate to happiness, and a good life or better life. And, the construct of happiness matters.
Have you ever stopped to think, what makes for a good life? What makes you happy? What brings your life purpose?
Do you think they are all the same?
I argue that Eudaimonia makes for a good life.
Eudaimonia was first expressed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and is often translated as happiness, though some academics contend the more accurate translation is “well-being” or “human flourishing.” Another description of eudaimonia is, “an ethical theory that calls people to recognize and to live in accordance with their ‘true self'” (Norton, 1976). Perhaps the more complete definition is “living a complete human life, or the realization of valued human potentials” (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). The personalized wording derived from ethical principles is certainly curious(?)!
Could the good life boil down to what is good, what is right, and what is just? My contention is that individual potential builds bridge between ethics and a good life. That is to say, understanding all individuals leads to comprehension of personal happiness within a good life.
A life that is good can be admirable or enviable.
Admirable lives are those disciplined by principle, virtue, and sacrifice; and, enviable lives are lives good for those individuals. There is a certain amount of struggle in the admirable life. There is a certain amount of happiness in the enviable life. The truly good life will have some of each. This combination builds the contention that the good life is one where an individual comes to realize their ‘true self’ as a painful evolution through challenges and struggles.
The concept of our ‘true self’ is an ideal for being purposeful with a striving perfection that gives us direction and meaning. Efforts to live in accordance with our ‘true self’ is to realize those potentials. These efforts give rise to our own eudaimonia. Struggles occur to refine our constructs of a good life, the foundation for our values and principles. Overcoming those challenges provide our life some meaning.
Eudaimonia is the combination of a meaningful struggle and a joyful ending, and happiness falls somewhere on that timeline between pleasure and joy.
The spectrum is underscored by personal values and interpretations of happiness. But happiness alone does not make for a meaningful life, though they certainly overlap. Meaningfulness involves an integration of the past, present, and future while happiness is oriented in the current moment. Meaningfulness is linked to giving and service while happiness is linked to getting and receiving.
These descriptions help define some differences between a life to be admired and a life to envied. There are more emotional and physical challenges in the meaningful life, which may rob us of happiness temporarily, but rewards us with joy. We admire one’s struggles for their ultimate expression of ‘true self’, but only after the struggle is behind them. The personal challenge then is to cope above the fray and avoid being hijacked by the stress of the struggle. The stress that leads to chronic negative emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, distress, and depression.
I contend that Eudaimonia refers to a dynamic state and action toward the good, the right, and the just. Through that experience, we formulate a disciplined struggle and then reap the reward of joy. Eudaimonia should then be considered through constructs that elevate the individual such as self-actualization, self-determination, intrinsic motivation, positive psychology, personal expression, flow, grit, meaningfulness, flourishing, spirituality, and self-efficacy. These eudaimonic expressions are reflections of our values and they are seen as the choices we make, leading to a linear reflection of our life.
Perhaps we should think about it as ‘well doing’ versus “well-being.”
Let’s think about this from a practical perspective, specifically considering someone struggling with persistent and chronic pain. This is a concern as the fundamental perception of pain and illness evolves. The medical framing of pain has historically implied that it must be eliminated, and that feeling good is more important than anything else in order to live well. We have learned that those in chronic pain may see this as completely impossible. But, like the silence between the notes in music, so can there be freedom from pain. These episodes will be seen more frequently through a focus of values and goals. These episodes offer the opportunity for individual potential and purpose that might have been born from pain. A level of acceptance is required to break that cycle of impossibility and move through the perceived boundaries.
Personal values as the undercurrent for our drive is perhaps the best way to move through those symptoms that wall us in and bind us down. All too often the decision is avoidance when anxiety, fear, and stress are allowed to hijack us. Our choice to be hijacked is consistent with our desire to feel good, and we end up in a static spiral of frustration. We sacrifice our values to the moment of pain and symptoms. If we are going to accept our circumstance in order to move past it, then we will have to move our personal values to the forefront in order to fuel that endeavor. Values are verbally construed global outcomes or chosen life directions. (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999).
The expression of our values through our potential and evolving ‘true self’ provides us happiness, meaning, and joy. Our patients help us fulfill our values and our purpose. Let’s give them something back.
Consider this challenge: Choose one of your patients with chronic pain or a chronic condition (i.e., CA) and inquire about what is most valuable to them, discuss their values, and continue with open ended questions about their values and sense of purpose. See if you can figure out how those values helped their decisions, or if they overlooked their values during certain decisions. Ask if they value pain. Then, ask them if it adds meaning and happiness to their life. Keep in mind that some depth and breadth is required. Follow through with therapeutic interventions. I bet their session with you will be one of the most productive and will occur with very little interference from pain or symptoms.
I will share this value, Our profession! Our profession offers us the ability to serve those who need help with their struggle and their evolution. There is no higher calling!
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford.
Norton, D. L. (1976). Personal destinies: A theory of ethical individualism.
Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of happiness studies, 9(1), 139-170