For over 2 decades our friends have made reference to Kelley and me being like Tom and Barbara Good from ‘The Good Life’. Between our veg beds, our fermented foods, our home-made and upcycled clothing, and our desire to try and live closer to the way nature intended us to live, I’d say that the similarities between us and the Goods have grown as we have. This makes me happy.
Note to Millennials and Gen Z-ers: The Good Life was a popular TV series off of the 70s following the journey of our heroes, Tom and Barbara, as they face an increasingly dystopian world, creating a brave new world despite the constant jibing from their capitalist, totalitarian neighbours Margo and Jerry. Think of it like a cross between I am Legend and Mad Max (with a hint of Great British Bake Off).
Finding happiness is essentially what The Good Life was all about in my opinion, and the two main characters always succeeded in finding it. Covered in shit, wearing threadbare clothes, and endlessly struggling, they always had a sense of calm, peaceful contentedness.
Happiness, not in spite of the struggle. Happiness because of the struggle. Between this concept and my crush on Felicity Kendal, my brain was alight with the revelation that struggling and discomfort may not have been the evil that I had been led to believe.
This notion of happiness is what the Stoics, and many other classical Western Philosophy systems referred to as Eudaimonia.
We touched briefly on this last week in the article about The Meathead Philosopher, but I’d like to delve a little deeper today as I feel there is huge power in this concept.
Our modern usage of the word ‘happy’ often describes the emotion of feeling joy, or pleasure. As the Collins dictionary puts it:
in British English
(ˈhæpɪ IPA Pronunciation Guide)
Word forms: -pier or -piest
- feeling, showing, or expressing joy; pleased
I’d be happy to show you around
- causing joy or gladness
- fortunate; lucky
the happy position of not having to work
- aptly expressed; appropriate
a happy turn of phrase
And while this does indeed echo the sentiments of feeling ‘happy’, the term Eudaimonia is far more expansive and, in our opinion more relevant to finding the ‘good life’.
The term, deriving from ‘eu’ meaning good and ‘daimon’ meaning spirit, is perhaps better translated as ‘thriving’ or ‘flourishing’.
In his book “The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness”, Jonas Salzgeber eplains:
The Stoics’ overarching goal was eudaimonia; to be good with your inner daimon, to live in harmony with your ideal self, to express your highest version of yourself in every moment.Jonas Salzgeber
In essence, what the Stoics were seeking was the same as Tom and Barbara; a good life.
The difference between happiness, as we term it today, and flourishing or thriving is simple.
Happiness is generally a passing emotion or mood. It’s lovely to feel happy; the warm glow, the involuntary smile, the sense of gratitude and pleasure bubbling up your spine. But it’s still momentary. Whether it derives from cosmic sources or a cocktail of neurochemicals coursing around your noggin, eventually the sensations settle back to normality.
Happy is an adjective. Flourishing and thriving are verbs. They are doing words. They insinuate continued action; a practice flowing from moment to moment.
By seeking to flourish and thrive, we don’t seek an easy life, but one that arms us with the tools and resilience to tackle anything life throws at us, and as a consequence we often feel happy.
Happiness not in spite of the struggle. Happiness because of the struggle.
Happiness ceases to be the goal, the thing to achieve, but instead becomes a ‘happy’ by-product of seeking eudaimonia.
Happiness setpoints and the hedonic treadmill
Each of us has a happiness setpoint, a default level of perceived happiness, that our brains return to again and again regardless of the good and bad things that happen to us, and much of this is all down to our genes (see this study) and out of our direct control.
When really good things happen we feel great. But only for a while. We eventually become used to that new, prosperous situation that created such joy. It becomes the new norm and our emotional perceptions recalibrate accordingly. What once seemed miraculous becomes mundane. And so we set our sights higher to new peaks of happiness.
Equally when the shit hits the fan we feel pretty low. But this too passes. Eventually we come to terms with the new condition and this also becomes our new norm. Here, we tend to lower ongoing expectations, and return to a sense of achievement by doing things that previously would have seemed entirely un-noteworthy.
As Stephen Hawking put it:
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”Stephen Hawking, on being diagnosed with motor neuron disease
This notion of the happiness setpoint has come to be termed the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. Essentially, it is the sensation of continually moving towards happiness, but never really getting there.
“I’ll be happy when I get that promotion/earn that money/get that attractive spouse/be thin/be muscular…”
We fixate our happiness on ‘things’. And sure, when we get them we feel happy. But like a pendulum our happiness swings back and forth.
A great example of this is that although many industrialised nations have doubled or even tripled their levels of wealth in the last 50 years, the levels of satisfaction and happiness reported by people haven’t changed, other than things like depression being more pronounced.
We’ve all experienced the come-down, the crash, the anti-climax. We have the most wonderful experience. Everything is perfect. We are on top of the world. Then, the next day or the day after that, we slump. And so the pendulum swings.
Or we have a near death experience. We are horrifically shaken. Then we laugh hysterically. We feel blessed in life. We count ourselves lucky.
Happiness and sadness are but two extremes of the pendulum. Eudaimonia is the stillness that is present at every point of the arc.
How to achieve eudaimonia
When we seek ‘things’ to make us happy is it really the stuff that we are after? No, it’s often about how that stuff or situation will make us feel.
When we say “I’ll be happy when I’ve lost 20 lbs”, what we might really be seeking is to feel more confidence in ourselves.
When we say “I just need that promotion and then I’ll be happy”, we may mean that we are desperate to feel like we are valued by others.
We can spend a very long time getting all these things only to discover that nothing has changed, that we still feel the same.
So a quicker, more productive approach might be to sit down and look at our goals for happiness, fat-loss or more money etc, and work out what we hope to feel from this, apart from happy.
For example, if feeling of value crops up think, what can I do now that is of value to others on a small scale, personal level today? How can I be of service to those around me?
By knowing you have directly helped someone you instantly start to see your own value, as do others. No waiting for your opportunity to arise in the workplace, no competing with your workmates. Instant results.
And we need to discover the overarching reasons for why we do anything. When we start working with a new client we really drum home the need to understand their WHY. The more you feel your why in a visceral way, the more you understand what is driving you and the more meaning you are able to place upon it.
The need for struggle
It has been observed that trees grown in a biodome often do not flourish. All of the prime conditions are optimal for them. They have the right soil, the perfect amount of water and nutrients, exactly the right exposure to light, yet they do not grow as well as those in the outside world.
What was missing? The wind.
Without being battered by the wind the trees didn’t put down deep roots to cope with the constant struggle to stay upright, and as a result no longer flourished.
Humans are the same. We need some hardship and struggle to thrive.
As Ross Edgley, a true Meathead Philosopher and professional struggler, states
“By relying too heavily on the ‘happiness’ we are frequently (and wrongly) programmed to avoid discomfort, fatigue, fear and testing situations.”
And by avoiding these ‘negative’ factors we are doing ourselves out of the very conditions needed to truly flourish.
“The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”Epictetus
It’s the difficulties we face in life that make the good things taste so sweet. When we face discomfort we truly appreciate the simple comforts we have. This is why hunger is the best sauce, and why the best views are the ones from atop that massive hill.
There is something deeply fulfilling about overcoming adversity; a real sense of growth that comes from pushing through discomfort.
In 2020 our in-person health coaching business was effectively decimated due to lockdown. Rather than be defeated we chose to see the opportunity in our own crisis and pivot to online training.
Up to this point, my biggest technological achievement had been to remember my phone when I went on a trail run. The notion of websites, apps, funnels, and uploaded video content was akin to witchcraft.
But I struggled through it. And it was a struggle of Herculean proportion, with much swearing, a few tears and an unfeasibly large number of tabs left open. But we got there and the sense of fulfilment has been massive.
This was not the struggle I wanted, but it was definitely the one I needed.
Live in harmony with your ideal self.
The Stoics believed to truly achieve eudaimonia one had to practice virtue, to be a virtuous human.
Nowadays, the term virtue often carries undertones of religiosity, so I prefer to think of core values.
Working out what your personal core values are is a really useful exercise, that we discussed in this article, and once you have decided what values are important to you, what values you hold dear, what values you are glad to exhibit, and those values you’d like to cultivate, you then have a framework for living and making decisions.
And it’s worth remembering that you are aiming to live in harmony with your ‘ideal’ self. It’s ok to err, to make mistakes, and to fall short. It’s an ideal, something to aim for, not something you’ll achieve every time. The important thing is to try and to accept that you are human; to understand that humans make mistakes, a lot of mistakes. With your core values firmly in hand you have a road map to lead you back to your true path.
And on the subject of value, one exercise that we get people to do inside the 5 Circles of Health: Revolution programme is to map out every role they have in every aspect of community they interact with, from home life, to work, to online, to local community, to the environment, everything.
What roles do they take on? And what impact does that role have on the other members of that community?
When you do this exercise properly you end up with a pretty extensive list and a great understanding of the network of community that you serve. This will give you a huge understanding of your personal value to each of the communities around you. You are far more vital than you realise.
Finding eudaimonia is a journey not a destination. Flourishing and thriving are both pursuits not end goals. Living the Good Life is about taking the highs with the lows. It’s about not shying away from discomfort because we understand that this is where the true growth comes from.
Thank you Tom and Barbara for everything you have taught me.
And speaking of discomfort. In less than 2 weeks time I will be attempting my Everest Challenge to raise money for S.T.E.P.S mental health charity (You can read about it here).
If you like to donate the please visit https://justgiving.com/fundraising/glenneverest thank you