Human Flourishing

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.

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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 me 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.

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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 in front.  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’.  

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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…

ZB x

*Pun not intended.

The Concept of Ikigai

The ‘ikigai’ concept has a lot to love.  It combines individual hopes with world needs and glaring realities.  Let’s explore it, at a very top level, in no particular order.

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Region 1: WHAT YOU LOVE

What an important start. It’s hard to imagine a happy life without imagining a scenario where you are doing something or being somewhere that you love. Some people instinctively know what they love because it brings them joy, happiness and flow. It is the things that you are grateful for today or wish were in your life tomorrow. It could relate to tasks, people, activities or places. Doing this thing, being with these people, completing this activity puts a smile on your face. What were you last doing when you forgot time itself?

Region 2: WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS

Let’s be honest, out of the four regions, this takes last priority for a lot of us. It is for this reason that we see the modern world in disarray. We see a complete mess of global politics, lives still lost in starvation despite food wastage, and increasing layers of depression despite relatively good living conditions in much of the western world. It was JFK who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Imagine if we modernised that sentiment and as global citizens asked what we could do for our world? Have you ever asked yourself this question? If no, then why not?

Region 3: WHAT CAN YOU BE PAID FOR

Sadly this region dominates most of our lives. We have bills to pay, roofs to put over our heads and food to put on the table. Despite these basic needs being met, we have not stopped there. It is never enough. We are always looking for any opportunity to make more money, often at the expense of our health, or time with our friends and families. Whilst making money is not a shameful thing, not recognising greed in our own lifestyle is. The affects of hedonistic pursuits will only lead to a life of meaningless and unfulfillment as the precious scale of ikigai will be thrown you off balance.

Region 4: WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT

This is obvious for some. You may be particularly intelligent, gifted or trained in a particular area. You have lived your whole life with these talents or you have worked hard to achieve them. It makes sense that these traits or skills will either bring you immense joy or pay you well. If you are well on your pathway of self searching, it may already bring you both – lucky you!

How else could these regions be interpreted? Feel free to leave your positive comments below.

Okinawa’s Longevity Lessons

This is an excerpt from Blue Zones: Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest by Dan Buettner.

Embrace an ikigai
Older Okinawans can readily articulate the reason they get up in the morning. Their purpose-imbued lives gives them clear roles of responsibility and feelings of being needed well into their 100s.

Rely on a plant-based diet
Older Okinawans have eaten a plant-based diet most of their lives. Their meals of stir-fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, and tofu are high in nutrients and low in calories. Goya, with its antioxidants and compounds that lower blood sugar, is of particular interest. While centenarian Okinawans do eat some pork, it is traditionally reserved only for infrequent ceremonial occasions and taken only in small amounts.

Get gardening
Almost all Okinawan centenarians grow or once grew a garden. It’s a source of daily physical activity that exercises the body with a wide range of motion and helps reduce stress. It’s also a near-constant source of fresh vegetables.

Eat more soy
The Okinawan diet is rich foods made with soy, like tofu and miso soup. Flavonoids in tofu may help protect the hearts and guard against breast cancer. Fermented soy foods contribute to a healthy intestinal ecology and offer even better nutritional benefits.

Maintain a moai
The Okinawan tradition of forming a moai provides secure social networks. These safety nets lend financial and emotional support in times of need and give all of their members the stress-shedding security of knowing that there is always someone there for them.

Enjoy the sunshine
Vitamin D, produced by the body when it’s exposed on a regular basis to sunlight, promotes stronger bones and healthier bodies. Spending time outside each day allows even senior Okinawans to have optimal vitamin D levels year-round.

Stay active
Older Okinawans are active walkers and gardeners. The Okinawan household has very little furniture; residents take meals and relax sitting on tatami mats on the floor. The fact that old people get up and down off the floor several dozen times daily builds lower body strength and balance, which help protect against dangerous falls.

Plant a medical garden
Mugwort, ginger, and turmeric are all staples of an Okinawan garden, and all have proven medicinal qualities. By consuming these every day, Okinawans may be protecting themselves against illness.

Have an attitude
A hardship-tempered attitude has endowed Okinawans with an affable smugness. They’re able to let difficult early years remain in the past while they enjoy today’s simple pleasures. They’ve learned to be likable and to keep younger people in their company well into their old age.

Further Resource: 
In Dan’s TED talk, he shares the 9 common diet and lifestyle habits that keep them people spry past age 100. Check it out here – Dan Buettner – How to Live to be 100+