Written September 1, 2016
Today I had the best case of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon that I can remember*. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is the cognitive bias also known as the ‘Frequency Illusion’. It occurs when a person, after having learned some (usually obscure) fact, word, or phrase for the first time, encounters that item again, perhaps several times, shortly after having learned it. Arnold Zwicky, a Stanford linguist, writes that, “people who are reflective about language – professional linguists, people who set themselves up as authorities on language, and ordinary people who are simply interested in language – are especially prone to the Frequency Illusion.” I think we all know where I sit on the spectrum…but alas, I defer.
I sit at breakfast this morning in a faraway hotel on the other side of the country. I am surrounded by ageing businessmen and a few early survivors from a sports awards dinner that took place in the complex the night before. To my left is a young woman whose vocal phone conversation gives away more than I need to know about her daily objectives. A voice in my head recognises an opportunity to get ‘presidential’ and offer an introduction. I can feel her pull for face to face conversation as she sits next to me in a big and relatively empty room but my emotional incapability gets in the way and I keep my head down as I busily underline and scribble on the 70-page report in front of me.
My choice of literature this morning is not ‘news’ nor is it ‘work’. It doesn’t even tick one of the twelve ‘homework’ projects I should be completing. Instead I bury my mind in genuine interest and uneducated passion. The fields of positive psychology, policy making and world socioeconomics are taking up my thoughts again, this time in the World Happiness Report 2016. Leading experts across the fields of economics, psychology, survey analysis, national statistics, health, and public policy – describe how measurements of well-being can be used effectively to assess the progress of nations. The report reviews the state of happiness in the world and reflects a recent global demand for happiness to be used as a criteria for government policy. I will divulge my thoughts on the report at a later date but for now I must come back to the Baader-Meinhof thing.
I’m busy salivating over my apple and cinnamon pancakes as I devour the content on page 10 of the report. A word I have never seen before sticks out amongst the mundane – ‘eudaemonic’. I am completely unfamiliar with this term but its context piques my interest as I learn that its roots are in philosophy and its origins tied to the one and only, Aristotle. Here is the passage paraphrased, “…eudaimonic; having such a purpose that would be central to any reflective individual’s assessment of the quality of his or her own life.” What a fascinating thought. I circle the word, write LU (look up) next to it and move on to the pleasures of page 11. My ‘day job’ consumes the rest of the day and soon enough, it is time for me to collect my stray thoughts and head to the airport for my flight home.
The three and half hour flight passes by with ease, soothed by the flavours of wild black fruit in my travel-sized shiraz. We land and the plane rolls around the airport grounds searching for its destination gate. It is enough time to turn on our electronic devices and see what earthly delights await our returning self’s. My emails continue to become a burden as the influx of reading material becomes almost unmanageable, or at least unenticing to become manageable. Delete-delete-save-read-delete. Remind to hire an assistant when I ‘make it’, won’t you please? Delete-read-save-save-delete-read. I silently choke on the next email as I consider my whereabouts and the distaste for alarmed states. The large green image above beams back at me from the screen and it is hard to pretend that I didn’t notice the ten letters calling out, “eudaimonia” from within. This is a sure relative of ‘eudaimonic’ if I ever did see.
The scholarly culprit is an institute after my own heart; The School of Life. The email announces the release of ‘Untranslatable Words’. This card set is a gathering of 20 of the best words from around the world that our own language has not quite yet pinned down. I envision the deck making its way in to my own household very soon and get back to the feast onsite. Here is the passage as it reads, “Eudaemonia: Ancient Greek. Often translated as ‘happiness’, it really means the deepest kind of fulfilment, often comprising a flourishing work and love life. It’s accepted that eudaimonia can go hand in hand with lots of day-to-day frustration and pain. You can possess eudaimonia even if you are, periodically, really rather grumpy”. Such a beautiful definition. The word, the concept, the frequency; it is all beginning to dawn on me. But I have bags to collect. Class dismissed.
My luggage is unusually slow to arrive but it does so eventually and I make my way to the taxi line. The car pulls up and I’m immediately remorseful for the weight of my bag when I see the drivers age. The inside of the car is as musty as its owner and I struggle to hold my breath as I keep the window politely wound up in the cold weather. I make sure we are both of understanding regarding the end point and I slip back into the systematic elimination of my emails. Delete-delete-save-read-delete-read. The Ethics Centre, another institution I have a great fondness for (are you noticing a theme here), survives a read in the brutal cull. The content sparks my interest as it is the weekend of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and as per my previous post, you’ll know that if I could trade my undergraduate learning for something that looked like this, I’d do it tomorrow. I scroll down the email scanning for anything further that keeps this communication from departing my inbox and BOOM, there’s that little fucker again.
“Ethics Explainer – Eadaimonia or Living Your Best Life”. Three times in one day?! Illusion or not, it was getting a bit strange. Here is an excerpt, “The closest English word for the Ancient Greek term eudaimonia (yu-day-moh-nee-ah) is probably “flourishing”. The philosopher Aristotle used it as a broad concept to describe the highest good humans could strive toward – or a life ‘well lived’.
For many years scholars translated eudaimonia as ‘happiness’ but there are clear differences. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was achieved through living virtuously – which you might describe as being good. But this is not guaranteed to make us ‘happy’ in the modern sense of the word. In fact, it might sometimes mean doing something that makes us unhappy, like telling an upsetting truth to a friend.
The eudaimon life is one where a person develops the excellences of being human. For Aristotle, this meant developing virtues like courage, practical reason, good humour, moderation, kindness and more.”
So there you have it. The universe/Aristotle has spoken. Eudaemonia is demanding some of my attention and perhaps now yours too. But where do I fit this in? Do I have to take up a 6 year degree in psychology, philosophy, or politics? I have not time nor desire for the outdated formal education system though it would be remiss of me not to devote more time to further deciphering this interesting way of life. Make that thirteen projects…
*Pun not intended.