There seems to be almost endless supplies of opinion and argument describing what ‘happy’ really is. I don’t want to re-write any of that. I suppose I do want to emphasise that word ‘describe’ though. For it seems to me, happiness is something to be described rather than to be defined.
Think of it this way. Hold in your mind, the colour yellow. Assuming you have seen and are able to see the colour, I don’t believe you will be able to define it, but you will be able to describe it. You’ll probably also be able to draw some analogies, to say what it is like. Maybe you’ll also be able to talk about how the colour yellow makes you feel: happy, cheerful, sad, soulful, motivated or whatever.
About such things, it’s description and association that matter more than sterile definitions. It’s experience and knowing that matters.
So just what is this thing, this experience called ‘happy’?
Bear with me on this for a moment. I want to share a story with you. Let me reflect on the piece I wrote about ‘Quote Me Happy’ all those years ago. Just before I wrote the piece, I’d been a member of a conference plenary panel whose role was to lead reflections on the nature of happiness. The panel included a professor of Coaching, a professor of Theoretical Physics, a solider, an HR leader and me. I remember that we were all agreed, that being happy or creating happiness is well beyond personal pleasure or even personal fulfilment.
We all spoke about happiness as being more to do with creating ‘wealth’ by which we didn’t mean becoming richer. We talked about real happiness being to do with contributing to people within whom we are connected whether in business, in society and in communities. It seems to me that happiness is intimately connected to contributing to the networks of people around us. This might seem obvious to many of us. Hopefully I am just being a bit dim-witted, but it seems to me that this insight is not as commonplace as I might have hoped, although it’s actually a very old insight.
In fact, it was in the 4th century BC that the philosopher Aristotle used the word ‘eudaimonia’ (often translated ‘happiness’) to sum up that experience of contributing to well-being and wealth in society. Who am I to argue with Aristotle?! His reflections are at the foundation of so much of our own thinking. So I may be forgiven for being surprised and disappointed to read of Aristotle being hijacked.
I read of Aristotle’s hijack in a website of a really influential organisation that said by ‘eudaimonia’ he meant ‘personal fulfilment’ as opposed to pleasure. In fact, that’s just not true. It’s just not, important though pleasure and personal fulfilment are.
Perhaps you can imagine three stepping-stones across a fast-flowing stream. You are standing on one side of stream and need to get across.
You step onto the first stone, which represents pleasure and it’s all going well for you. You are on your way. Perhaps you can reflect on the things in life that give you pleasure. That’s you on the first stepping-stone. You begin to think to yourself, ‘there must be more to life than this’ and plan stepping out onto the next stepping-stone.
The thing is, the gap is wider between the stepping-stone of pleasure and that of fulfilment and the water is flowing very fast. You know that if you miss your footing, you may be swept away. Nevertheless, you have ambition and commitment, so you step from the stone of pleasure to the stone of fulfilment. When you get there, you find many things that assure you of the importance of personal fulfilment and much to be content about. You conclude that there is little reason to move from here and you settle down, enjoying a good life. You learn from others that the sum of happiness is this experience of fulfilment and you discover there is a ranging torrent of water between the stepping-stone you are on and the next one. You’ve been told the feeling of fulfilment is a good description of happiness. You’re settled. Why should you move on to the next stepping-stone?
Why? Well the reason is, we might have heard that descriptions of happiness are about the experience and is a feeling of personal fulfilment. However, there is that third stepping-stone beyond you and it is what seems like an impassable gulf, a huge chasm. Yet something inside tells you that the feeling of personal fulfilment is not the end point, there is more. That more is in the pursuit of happiness away over the third stepping-stone.
However uncertain you are, Aristotle’s happiness, his ‘eudaimonia’ lies there. You’ve been sold a lie, if you think happiness is just about pleasure or a feeling of fulfilment. At least you have, if you’ve been told ‘eudaimonia’ means personal fulfilment on its own.
I wrote a book a year or so ago. It’s a novel, just a story. It’s about a man finding himself called the Journal of Bran Ayton. In the book Bran reflects how we commonly hear the mantra ‘respect the autonomous individual,’ that fulfilment is all about respect for people’s freedoms and so on. Of course, that’s important, but he goes on. He says in the end that the mantra should be, ‘respect the connected individual’ that it is in our connectedness that we find happiness.
It seems to me that one of the costs we face in the period of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is in the legacy of inadequate descriptions and sometimes faulty referencing great thinkers for our own purposes. Just as it is inadequate to suggest happiness is summed up in talk of personal fulfilment, so recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will not be in staying on the stepping-stone we are accustomed to.
It seems to me that recovery, that happiness will come through stepping beyond, through moving on to new places and spaces, through fundamentally our connectedness.
Personally, I am hopeful for what lies ahead. I invite you to share in my hope. I know there are uncertainties we will all face. For many the journey beyond where we are will be tricky. There may not be pleasure, in fact there may be hardship. There may not be the ‘personal fulfilment’ of that faulty definition. However, there is the promise of ‘happiness’, of Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’ as we find new ways.
So, come, jump to that further stepping-stone with me. You don’t have to stay where you are for all its fading comforts. There is a fuller happiness.
Written by Michael Croft
November 10, 2020