In their quest to understand what makes people happy, positive psychologists have begun to look back at the ancient writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Aristotle proposed the concept of eudaimonia (pronounced as u-day-monia) in the 4th century B.C. in his Nicomachean Ethics. The term eudaimonia is etymologically based in the Greek words eu (good) and daimon (spirit). It describes the notion that living in accordance with one’s daimon, which we take to mean character and virtue, leads to a good life.
Put another way, Aristotle understood human beings to be creatures constantly driven toward what is more perfect. In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle clarifies his perfectionism concept: "Every craft and every line of inquiry and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good; that is why some people were right to describe the good as what everything seeks."
Aristotle introduces the notion that individuals, always striving toward perfection, have potential yet to be realized. Just as an acorn has within it the potential to be an oak tree—and only an oak tree, not any type of tree, or a bird or a daffodil—a fertilized human egg has the potential to be a person, not anything else. And inherent in each person is a unique set of potentials.
In the Aristotelian view, we are driven to pursue our potential, to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. For you, that might be to be an artist, a musician, a scholar, a craftsman, an athlete, or an explorer.
The eudaimonic life is to be had whenever we are in pursuit of fulfilling our potential. That way, we find more meaning and purpose in life.
But to realize our potential, we need what Aristotle called "real goods." By real goods, he meant those things necessary for the development of our potential, such as shelter, clothing, food, and friends, but also arts, music, literature, and culture. In the modern world, there are certain things that we need to be able to do in the pursuit of fulfilling our individual potential, and, in this sense, real goods are defined by their necessity to us as individuals.
The obvious example is that we need money, and so it becomes a real good. But there is also what Aristotle referred to as the "golden mean," which is the right amount of the good: too little and we are in deficit of what we need to pursue our potential, as in times of famine when people’s potential is literally thwarted; too much and what was a real good becomes an "apparent good"—something we don’t need.
Apparent goods are the things we simply don’t need. They may give us pleasure, but we don’t actually need them. The important thing is not to confuse them with real goods, which can lead us to think we do need them.
Modern-day positive psychologists are now taking these ideas based on ancient Greek philosophy very seriously in their quest to understand what seems most important for a good life.
The eudaimonic view is a different way of thinking about happiness than the view we are bombarded with in our daily lives by advertisements that seek to define modern life and sell us apparent goods as if they were real goods. Seen this way, modern life makes it hard to find happiness because we end up striving for, and investing our energies in the quest for, apparent goods. In short, we seek pleasure and joy at the expense of meaning and purpose.
What does it actually mean in practice to follow Aristotle’s philosophy? We need to learn the difference between real goods and apparent goods, to seek the "golden mean" in our lives, and in so doing, to turn our attention to what really matters—becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be.
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Joseph, S. (2017). Authentic. How to be yourself and why it matters. Piatkus, Little Brown.
Nafstad, H. (2015), ‘Historical, philosophical, and epistemological perspectives’, In S. Joseph (ed.), Positive Psychology in Practice: Promoting Human Flourishing in Work, Health, Education and Everyday Life (pp. 9 - 29), Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.