The pursuit of eudaimonia

“Eudaimonia is a high-level concept, a measure of quality of life, of flourishing, of fulfilling one’s potential.” – John Kay

Sit down and strap yourselves in, ’cause I’m getting all philosophical up in here.

The subtitle of John Kay’s book Obliquity is Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly. In an earlier post I relayed his findings about company profitability: that the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the profit-oriented ones tend to fail. But Kay didn’t limit his thinking to money; he also ventured into philosophy. Specifically, Kay explains that happiness and satisfaction in life are also best attained indirectly.

Kay explained it well, so I’m just gonna quote him.

“Uncertainty about the relationship between wealth and happiness has exercised humans for as long as any intellectual problem. According to Plutarch’s account, King Croesus displayed his rich treasure hoards to Solon, and asked if any man had been as fortunate. The truly fortunate man, replied Solon, was the honest Athenian, Tellus, who enjoyed his grandchildren and left his children well provided for when he died gloriously in battle. ‘We don’t consider any man successful until he has died well.’

Aristotle. Ever notice how all ancient Greeks have that same creepy blank stare? [pic: Wikipedia, CC]

Aristotle. Ever notice that all ancient Greeks have that same creepy blank stare? [pic: Wikipedia, CC]

For Plutarch, to be fortunate was to live – and die – well. Aristotle wrote of eudaimonia, which is sometimes translated as happiness but more often as flourishing. Aristotle’s concept, and the ethical system it implies, has influenced our thought for two millennia. But most philosophers and psychologists perceive a difference between happiness and eudaimonia.

The psychologist Daniel Nettle suggests that there are three broad senses of the term happiness. The lowest – the basic level – comprises the momentary feelings that make us happy – the joy of sex, the pleasure of a beautiful sunset. The intermediate level is typically a state of mind rather than a physical response, a sense of satisfaction and well-being. These states of mind involve judgements about feelings as distinct from the feelings themselves. Eudaimonia is a high-level concept, a measure of quality of life, of flourishing, of fulfilling one’s potential. Similar distinctions and taxonomies are used by other writers.

Recognizing these different levels of happiness makes sense of the seemingly contradictory things that mountaineers, or parents, may tell us. The climber who reaches the summit of Everest has endured extreme discomfort (at a basic level) but on completion achieves a state of well-being (at intermediate level), which, in conjunction with other achievements, may contribute to a life lived to the full (high level). Parenthood is, for many people, their most worthwhile accomplishment (high level). Parents derive a continuing sense of satisfaction (intermediate level) that is more than the sum of their transitory experiences of frustration and joy (basic level).” (Obliquity – p39-40)

There are parallels between these different levels of happiness and the objectives, strategies, and tactics that make up leadership and project execution, and this helps to explain why some very worthwhile objectives are difficult to measure but nonetheless you know when you’ve achieved them.

Personally, I relate Kay’s examples (which include the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who has lost six toes to his passion¹) to my own experiences playing soccer. Over the last ten years or so, my teams (which for eight years I led) have won more than a dozen championships while playing with character and developing a positive reputation. During that same period, I’ve suffered numerous fairly serious injuries: a horrible high-ankle sprain that took a year to heal, a ruptured eardrum from taking a shot in the side of the head, all sorts of strained ligaments, various smashed toes, and so on. For a while there, I’d come limping into work every Wednesday and Friday, and people were wondering why on Earth I played this game. Well, I get basic level thrills from the individual matches, I enjoy the challenges faced over the course of a season, and I’m quite proud of what our team has accomplished over the years.

I’ve suffered numerous serious injuries; I’d come limping into work every Wednesday and Friday, and people were wondering why on Earth I played this game.

I didn’t start the teams in order to win championships – I started the teams because I have a passion for the game and I wanted to play on teams filled with my friends. Indirectly, though, things have worked out pretty well.

Kay’s point is that such greater satisfaction can only be achieved indirectly; the direct approach will likely fail. If you pursue happiness through cheap thrills (or fortune for wealth’s sake), then it will forever elude you, but if you pursue passions out of sheer joy then you will look back on a fulfilling life.


¹Incidentally, I had never heard of Reinhold Messner until about a month ago, and then three separate pieces (two books and a TV documentary) mentioned him…it’s funny how that happens


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Books, Everything, Soccer
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