Are you happy?
It’s a question you probably ask yourself. But is it the right question? What does it really mean to be happy?
Aeschylus and Sophocles and Aristotle had an interesting way of talking about happiness. Broadly speaking, in the Greek world, to live well meant to live a flourishing life. They called it “eudaemonia.”
What does it mean to flourish?
“You need resilience not just for the hard times. You need resilience if you’re going to be happy.”–Eric Greitens, US Navy Seal & Author of Resilience
It’s obvious to him when a tree is flourishing- provided the right soil, water, and sun, a flourishing tree grows tall and strong. Its branches spread, its trunk grows thicker, its leaves come in green in the spring, and it produces seeds, sap and deep roots.You also know when a tree is suffering. You know when it’s dead or when it’s close to dying. You don’t need to ask the tree how it feels. You look at the tree and you know these things. The tree is flourishing or it’s not. Flourishing is a fact, not a feeling. We flourish when we grow and thrive. We flourish when we exercise our powers. We flourish when we become what we are capable of becoming.
Of course, people are more complex than trees, and it can be more difficult to tell when a person is flourishing. But it’s not impossible—in fact, the basic idea is the same. As Edith Hamilton put it, the Greeks often thought of flourishing as “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”
Flourishing is rooted in action. That action might be meditation. It might be cooking a meal or teaching a class. It might be putting your daughter to sleep. But flourishing isn’t abstract. It’s a product of what we do. You exercise vital powers. Vital to you. Vital to the world. You draw from your strengths to do worthy work in the world. You work along lines of excellence. You don’t just do things. You do them well.
Aristotle, who did more than any other thinker to develop our ideas of human flourishing, said that “happiness is a kind of working of the soul in the way of perfect excellence.” It might be quality cooking, quality saxophone playing, or quality lovemaking—a flourishing life is a life lived along lines of excellence.
The Greeks recognized that true flourishing is not always within our control. The tree needs good soil and good sun. People need a life that affords them scope. Starving people find it hard to flourish.
Flourishing, then, isn’t a passing feeling or an emotional state. Flourishing is a condition that is created by the choices we make in the world we live in.
-Adapted from Resilience by Eric Greitens
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