One topic that I’ve had particular interest in has been how our selves are shaped by culture, particularly how cultural developments are changing our sense of self.  I’m planning to write more about that topic; this will be the first in a series of posts about 21st Century selves.

Question-mark-faceFirst, a word about what I mean by the term “self.”  William James gave a decent definition when he wrote that “[A] man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses, and yacht and bank account.”  We have self concepts—ideas about who we are.  We also have self-awareness—we reflect on who we are and recognize that we are separate from others.  Finally, we engage in self-presentation—intentionally presenting ourselves in a particular way to others.

Here are a few things I’ve written about cultural influences on self-concept, self-awareness, or self-presentation.   In The Facebook Self I described a friend who, as she goes about her day, often reflects on how she will write on Facebook about what she’s done.  I noted that social media have intensified our use of self-presentation strategies and have made what we present to others more central to ourselves than ever before.  I noted that, as we reveal less to others, our self concept is likely to become more constricted.  At the extreme, we end up thinking that we are nothing more than the selves we present to others.

In another post about social media, I wrote in Facebook, Depression, and Community about the association between heavy Facebook use and increased levels of depression.  I looked at how social media profiles are designed to be clever rather than genuine, and asked whether authenticity and community are possible on Facebook.

In Anxiety and Meritocracy, I looked at the effects that the American belief that the hardworking and talented will be the most successful have on our self-evaluation.  I described Maura Kelly’s argument that we are likely to blame ourselves and see ourselves as having little worth if we make poor decisions or don’t achieve at a high level.   I suggested that the high levels of anxiety characteristic of our society are due to our selves constantly being threatened by the negative self-evaluation that results from less-than-stellar achievement.

Finally, my last post was about substance abuse in privileged youth as being related to a lack of character development.  I cited Liz Kulze’s comment that those who have been protected and coddled fail to develop an adequate sense of self.  Such thinly developed selves seem particularly prevalent among young white males from wealthy homes.

So, that’s a summary of what I’ve written so far.  I hope to make more posts about 21st Century selves in the coming weeks.  I welcome any thoughts that you the reader have about how changes in culture are affecting the selves that we construct.

Darrell W. Johnson

Darrell Johnson

In an earlier post,  I discussed the distinction in Aristotle between eudiamonia, a form of happiness or fulfillment that is achieved by a person’s own efforts, and makarios, a happiness that is god-given.  Makarios can be translated “blessed”—that’s how the term is usually rendered into English from the Greek New Testament.  Aristotle thought one can achieve ordinary happiness through being virtuous, but even so the person may not be happy in the most complete sense if one is poor, has no offspring, or has children lacking in virtue. The virtuous person bears up well under such circumstances, but lacks the blessedness or supreme happiness (makarios) that comes only as a result of divine favor.  As I understand it, the Greek culture as a whole valued being blessed by the gods, and took material prosperity and social respectability as signs of such blessing. 


I don’t have any idea whether Jesus knew of Aristotle’s view of makarios, but I assume that, given his frequent references to Gentile beliefs and practices, he knew something of the Greek conception of what the  blessed person is like.  Thus, when he began what we call the Sermon on the Mount by stating that the poor in spirit are blessed, then followed closely with the claim that those who mourn are blessed, he must have known that he was turning on its head the Greek notion of what it means to be blessed.  


I have recently been listening to an MP3 recording of a course on the Sermon on the Mount taught by Darrell Johnson of Regent College, Vancouver, BC.  Johnson believes that modern English usage of the term “happy” both is too pallid to convey the meaning of makarios and puts too much emphasis on personal feeling.  Makarios turns not on how we feel about ourselves and our circumstances, but how God feels.  When Christ called the poor in spirit blessed, then, he was saying that their qualities are in accord with what God values, and so God is pleased with them.  Johnson suggests that finding out that one is approved by God has consequences for the person’s feelings; when one learns of God’s approval, that discovery is likely to produce joy.  Johnson gives other synonyms for makarios, including fortunate, approved, and in alignment or in sync with the kingdom of God.  Of the possible meanings of the term, the one I found most interesting was Carl Barth’s suggestion that makarios be rendered as “you lucky bums.”

So, why did Jesus say that it’s the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and others like them who are blessed?  One point that Johnson makes is that these qualities come about in the first place only in response to the Holy Spirit.  Thus, they are qualities that indicate that the kingdom of God has broken into one’s life.  The word for “poor” that Jesus uses (ptochos) means “beggar,” i.e. someone with no resources who is totally dependent on another.  That, says Johnson, is who Jesus is talking about; someone who is destitute, knows it, and relies entirely on God.

We may have difficulty seeing such a person as being blessed or having supreme happiness.  Remember that, for Johnson, the makarios statements in the Beatitudes aren’t about a feeling of personal satisfaction but a state of receiving God’s approval.  When Aristotle distinguished being blessed by the gods (makarios) from the happiness or fulfillment of eudiamonia, the blessing of the gods was something added to an already complete and virtuous life.  For Christ, blessedness begins with God taking hold of the person and shaking up his or her life, leading to a recognition of spiritual poverty, entry into mourning, and yearning for righteousness.  Who is blessed?  The person who, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt, has no hope but God. 

I previously discussed Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, the happiness which accompanies the good life and is different from pleasure (hedonia).  A psychologist who has paid considerable attention to the distinction between the two is Alan S. Waterman, who is on the faculty of the College of New Jersey.  I ran across a comment by him in the September, 2007 American Psychologist (pages 612-613).  His comment is in response to an article on the hedonic treadmill, which is the theory that we humans have a set point of happiness to which we revert.  Per the theory, our happiness isn’t permanently enhanced if a winning lottery ticket suddenly makes us rich or the girl (or guy) of our dreams consents to marry us.  Similarly, we don’t experience lasting sadness from having our house burn down or being diagnosed with malaria.  After a blip up or down in our degree of personal satisfaction, we will soon revert to our set point and be no more or less happy than we were to start out.


Waterman thinks that the hedonic treadmill doesn’t apply well to eudaimonia.  He claims that there is a separate eudaimonic treadmill, which can become a eudaimonic staircase, whereas the hedonic treadmill always stays a treadmill.  I’ll explain what he means after I discuss his definition of eudaimonia.


Waterman claims that the good life that eudaimonia accompanies is “excellence in the pursuit of fulfillment of personal potentials in ways that further an individual’s purposes in living.”  That’s not the same as Aristotle’s concept, because the element of virtue is lacking.  Would I experience eudaimonia if I managed to fulfill my potential to dominate and humiliate others whenever I had the chance?   If that was my goal in life and I got really good at it, I’ve met Waterman’s criterion, but I sure haven’t satisfied Aristotle’s.


Despite the problem with his definition, Waterman’s argument about the treadmill is interesting.  He relates the achievements of eudiamonia to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. Flow occurs when the challenges of an activity are closely matched to one’s level of ability.  Thus, when I started studying Biblical Greek last fall, I found the first set of translation exercises were somewhat beyond my capacity, but after a little practice my ability matched the exercises and I experienced flow.  According to Waterman, at that point I was also experiencing an enhanced sense of eudaimonia.  The state didn’t last, though, because eventually my skill level exceeded the demands made by that set of exercises, and what once was challenging became boring.  That’s the eudaimonic treadmill; I reverted to my previous level of well-being. 


However, I didn’t have to stay in a eudaimonic fixed state.  I could and did increase the level of challenge by going to a harder set of exercises.  I thus restored a sense of flow and again enhanced my sense of eudaimonia.  The process can be ongoing; the person always seeks new challenges and thereby achieves more and more of his or her potential.  This, says Waterman, is the eudaimonic staircase.



Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?

Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?


Though I’m fascinated by the argument, I have some questions.  First, returning to the difference between Waterman and Aristotle, do all forms of flow qualify?  If I continually enhance my personal potential to be a superior auto thief or street fighter, am I just as likely to experience eudaimonia as if I’m enhancing my potential for generosity or compassion?  Some ways of fulfilling my potential don’t seem advisable to pursue, even if they make me happy.  Second, why can’t someone use the same procedure with hedonia as Waterman does with eudaimonia, that is, seek ever greater pleasures and thus turn the hedonic treadmill into a hedonic staircase?  Waterman seems to think that this procedure works only for eudiamonia, but he doesn’t give any reason why it would work in the one case but not in the other.   The article to which he was responding (and which I previously discussed here) actually argues that the hedonic treadmill isn’t universal and there are ways to increase one’s hedonia.  Even if Waterman is wrong and always raising the bar works just as well with hedonia as with eudaimonia, the prospect of living in a society in which everyone is constantly seeking more pleasure doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as does a society in which everyone is seeking eudaimonia via striving for excellence.  Faced with two staircases to happiness, society may be better off if people head up the eudiamonic one.        

Before reading it, I imagined that the 2005 book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, was about the role of chance or serendipity in the pursuit of happiness.  Do we just come upon happiness without seeking it, or does it take an effort on our part?  Gilbert isn’t particularly interested in that question, though he does think that seeking happiness isn’t likely to get us anywhere. Specifically, we are lousy at figuring out what will make us happy, so our efforts to become happy usually are just shots in the dark.  Since we can’t predict at all well what will satisfy us, Gilbert advises us to read the research and take an empirically validated approach to planning our futures.


I’ll give my thoughts about the book, but first it seems only fair to evaluate my experience reading it by the standard Gilbert uses to weigh every other experience.  For him, the only useful standard is whether the experience produces happiness or pleasure, measured by asking for “the honest, real-time report of the attentive individual.” (page 71 in the Vintage paperback edition of the book)  This, he thinks, is all that people care about:


“Wealth doesn’t matter; utility does.  We don’t care about money or promotions or beach vacations per se; we care about the goodness or pleasure that these forms of wealth may (or may not) induce.  Wise choices are those that maximize our pleasure, not our dollars, and if we are to have any hope of choosing wisely, then we must correctly anticipate how much pleasure those dollars will buy us.”  (p. 260)


Using a methodology that would have pleased Gilbert, the minute I finished the book I answered the following question using a scale of 1 to 10:  “How much did you enjoy reading this book?”  I gave it a 2. 


According to Gilbert, you should take my rating seriously.  He claims that the best strategy to determine whether or not you would find some experience pleasant is to assume that you would like it about as much as someone else who already had the experience.  So, there you have it, if the book is in your reading list, you can just rate it as a pretty dismal read and move on to the next item.


Actually, I don’t particularly like Gilbert’s evaluative strategy, and I suspect that many of you would rate his book somewhat higher than I did.  Gilbert tried to be clever and entertaining in the examples he used; I was annoyed by this, but some of you may have enjoyed his efforts to amuse.  More significantly, I was disaffected  early on with Gilbert’s dismissal of eudaimonia, the notion (discussed in an earlier post) that a happy life is one that is well-lived or virtuous.  Gilbert quickly dismisses eudiamonia as not reflecting what we typically mean by the word “happiness” at all. (Why can’t we use two words, then?)  I suspect that a main reason he prefers to define happiness according to immediate subjective experience is that such experience is more easily measured than is the ethical quality of one’s life.  We psychologists are notorious for starting out trying to measure what’s important, but ending up deciding that what is important is what we’ve measured.  Gilbert seems to have made that error. 


Some of the studies that Gilbert cites seem to undermine the significance of the subjective measures of well-being that he prizes.  In one study, researchers used telephone interviews to ask people in different parts of the country how satisfied they were with their lives.  The researchers then compared the ratings obtained to the weather that day in each locale.  People who could look outside and see the sun reported that their lives were relatively happy, while people being rained on gave lower ratings of happiness.  Why should we be interested in maximizing a type of experience that is so ephemeral?  In another study, begun when the 2000 presidential election was still undecided, supporters of George Bush and Al Gore were asked how they would feel the day the election was decided either in favor of their candidate or his opponent.  The researchers contacted participants again on December 14, the day after Gore conceded, to assess their actual happiness, and, finally, assessed four months later what they remembered their happiness level had been on December 14.  In advance of Bush’s victory, his supporters overestimated how happy they would be, and conversely Gore supporters overestimated their eventual misery.  However, four months later both groups remembered having been much more elated or devastated than they actually had been.  So the supporter’s prediction of how they would feel and subsequent memory of how they felt actually corresponded, but didn’t match their emotions on the day itself.  We not only don’t know how happy we will be, we don’t know how happy we were.  Gilbert doesn’t ask the question that I would have asked: what has more significance in our lives, the months and years we anticipate and reminisce about how we will or did feel at a particular moment, or the feeling we had at that exact moment?  I don’t place as high a value on the pleasure of the moment as Gilbert does, and am inclined to consider the expectation and memory of events more important to the lives that each of us are constructing.


I guess it’s obvious that I don’t much like Gilbert’s emphasis on momentary feeling states.  I haven’t yet described the main features of his argument, though.  That will have to wait until a subsequent post.      

In earlier posts, I talked about the Greek concepts of eudiamonia and makarios as found in Aristotle.  Each refers to a form of happiness, with the first consisting of being fulfilled and virtuous and the second consisting of being fortunate and blessed.  Aristotle also talks about hedonia, or pleasure.  Aristotle took it as a given that humans (and other creatures) pursue pleasure.  After considering the views of other philosophers concerning pleasure, he concluded that it is good and that it serves to complete the activities that it accompanies (thus, for example, the experience of listening to music would be more complete if accompanied by pleasure than it would without pleasure).  However, pleasure can accompany either good or bad activities (with the good activities being those that are proper to man).  Pleasure accompanying good activities is good; pleasure accompanying bad activities is bad.   

As is only fitting for someone who thought virtue resided in the mean, Aristotle had a moderate view of pleasure.  He was favorably disposed to it for the most part.  He did not see it as the highest or only form of good, though, since, for the person lacking in virtue, pleasure often accompanies bad deeds, not good ones. 



In contrast to Aristotle’s moderate beliefs about pleasure, current cultural beliefs regarding pleasure seem rather immoderate.  The dominant view seems to be that pleasure as an unmitigated good to be sought at every opportunity.  This “if it feels good, do it” mentality (one of my college roommates endorsed this phrase as his guiding philosophy of life) has been a driving force in many works of popular culture, though some works exploring the theme make it clear that using pleasure as one’s compass is more likely to result in a shipwreck than a satisfying voyage (I’m thinking here of movies such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Autofocus”).  A less prevalent element in society is a Puritanism consistent with the characterization of the original Puritans by Thomas B. Macaulay “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”  In some quarters, there certainly is suspicion of the pleasures that life has to offer.  I’ve probably run into the aversion to pleasure most when working with clients who feel guilty whenever they take time to do something enjoyable.  I certainly don’t encounter this view as much now as I did years ago, though.  I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a Dutch Calvinist denomination.  Up until at least the sixties, the denomination disapproved strongly of movies, dancing, and card playing.  The idea was that these were mere worldly amusements, not fit to occupy citizens of the kingdom of God.  There certainly was some Puritanism in that stance.  It’s probably been at least twenty years since anyone prominent in the CRC argued seriously against such entertainments, though. 

So, at present the danger for our society seems to be that we overemphasize pleasure and confuse it with happiness.  One question to consider is whether it’s useful to distinguish, like Aristotle did, between the pleasures that accompany good activities and the pleasures that accompany bad activities.  How can we tell which is which?   




I wrote in an earlier post about the Greek concept of eudiamonia, which is often translated “happiness” but might better be called fulfillment or flourishing.  Aristotle believed that eudiamonia can be attained by cultivating virtue.  Some psychologists writing about happiness, such as Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Nettle, argue that considerations of morality and virtue should be exluded from discussions of happiness.  Their interest is in researching people’s subjective well being–what people report when they are asked whether they are satisfied or happy with their lives.  I’ve suggested that we would be missing much of what people mean when they speak of “happiness” if we exclude ideas of fulfillment or the life well-lived.  Responding to a comment by Emily Wright, I suggested a distinction between happiness as a feeling and happiness as a state of mind. 

I recently came across an article discussing many of these issues.  It’s written by philosopher Matthew Pianalto and is in the July/August 2008 issue of Philosophy Now.  He suggest that, in order to avoid confusion, we divide the concept of happiness into two subconcepts, subjective well-being and objective well-being.  The first is what psychologist’s questionnaires measure; the second is what philosophers discuss.  Considerations of virture, morality, and how we should live can be excluded from the first, but not from the second.

I was particularly interested in Pianalto’s argument against the exclusion of ethical considerations from all discussions of happiness.  He has us consider how we would respond if we learn that Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi leader responsible for millions of deaths, had described his life as happy.  Pianalto writes:

“Would we say that Eichmann was happy? If we are asking whether he felt happy, then of course we have to say yes. But if instead we are asking whether Eichmann’s was a happy life, and whether it is the sort that we should strive for in our pursuit of happiness, then the resounding answer is no. It would be absurd to suggest that there was nothing to be criticized about how Eichmann lived on the grounds that he felt happy. This in itself leads us to suspect that there is something defective about the kind of happiness Eichmann might have achieved – which is just what Aristotle etc were saying.”

In a previous post, I described Aristotle’s conception of eudiamonia, or happiness that consists of a life well-lived, a life in accordance with virtue.  Though Aristotle sometimes states unequivocally that this is the essence of happiness, at other times he indicates that something else is needed.  He says, for example, that happiness “needs external goods as well.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1099a31)  One reason for this claim is that some virtues, such as generosity and justice, can only be practiced if one has a certain measure of external resources.  However, he also gives another explanation:


And there are some external goods the absence of which spoils supreme happiness, e.g., good birth, good children, and beauty: for a man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or who lives all by himself and has no children cannot be classified as altogether happy; even less happy perhaps is a man whose children and friends are worthless, or one who has lost good children and friends through death.  (Nicomachean Ethics, 1099b2)


I don’t have the Greek text, so I’m not sure what word in the original is being translated as happy in each instance in this passage, but I believe that “supreme happiness” is the phrase used to translate not eudiamonia but makarios.  The distinction between the terms is that eudiamonia refers to happiness that is achieved by a person’s own efforts, but makarios is happiness that is god-given.  Another word used to translate makarios is “blessed”.  For Aristotle, one can achieve ordinary happiness through being virtuous, but supreme happiness (or blessedness) comes only as a result of divine favor.  He remarks that, “frequent reverses can crush and mar supreme happiness in that they inflict pain and thwart many activities.  Still, nobility shines through even in such circumstances, when a man bears many great misfortunes with good grace not because he is insensitive to pain but because he is noble and high-minded.” (Nicomachean Ethics,1100b28 )


For Aristotle, then, complete happiness depends on events outside our control.  We are dependent on others—on whether someone chooses to return our love, on whether our tribe, race, and religion are well-tolerated by those around us, or on whether our friends are trustworthy.  We also depend on God (or chance, for those not inclined to faith) to make our crops grow, keep our bodies healthy, and send hurricanes elsewhere.  But even if fortune doesn’t smile on us–and we are thus denied ultimate happiness–our cultivation of virtue isn’t fruitless, since, as Aristotle puts it, we are better able to bear misfortune “with good grace.” 


Certainly, exemplary people do bear up better under hardship, as seen in someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced martyrdom with courage and equanimity.  Some of us will encounter major misfortunes along life’s road—death of someone dear, divorce, serious illness, business failure, etc.—and the qualities we cultivate beforehand will make a tremendous difference in how we handle such events.


Though major life events can certainly disturb our happiness, our response to daily irritations, frustrations, and indignities also plays a role.  Perhaps Aristotle’s point about the virtuous person bearing disaster with good grace applies equally well to minor misfortunes.  Spilt coffee, bad weather, traffic jams, and surly coworkers can markedly affect our mood, or they can be borne with patience and good will.  Perhaps the characteristics most helpful in dealing with these daily hassles are not so much the classic virtues discussed by Aristotle but the “fruits of the spirit” enumerated by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—the person with all of these not only endures major misfortunes, but takes daily difficulties in stride.      

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle stated that the goal of life is happiness (in the original, eudiamonia), but for him the term meant something different than what it does for us.  In a helpful essay available on the web here Ian Johnson describes eudiamonia as having the sense of being successful at life or living well.  For Aristotle, living well means to live virtuously, which in turn means to live in accord with the function or purpose of human beings.  Everything, whether alive or not, has a particular function, and its worth consists in showing excellence in that function. For Aristotle, the proper function of humans “consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.” (1098a)  To show excellence in the function that is proper to humans is to show virtue; thus, Aristotle indicates that “happiness is a certain activity of the soul in conformity with perfect virtue.” 


So, in Aristotle’s view, the person who had a sense of well-being but was not virtuous would not be happy.  The concept of  eudiamonia refers to happiness that grows out of living properly, of living the sort of life that is consistent with our makeup as humans.  As such, it is a life of engagement in meaningful activity, the sort of life that is not only pleasant but deeply satisfying.


As noted in my previous post, Daniel Nettles argues that we shouldn’t use the term happiness in this sense because it imports a moral element into the term.  But why shouldn’t there be some such element?  When people say, “I want to be happy,”  do they really just mean that they want to have a reasonably high frequency of positive moods throughout their lives?  Don’t they also mean at least in part that they want to be able to evaluate their lives as meaningful and fulfilling?  I think they do, and so include eudiamonia as part of my understanding of happiness.     

So, what is happiness?  Obviously, it is a pleasant state, something to be desired.  The best discussion of the meaning of the term that I’ve run across is by British psychologist Daniel Nettle in his book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile.  I’ll present a summary of his explanation.


First of all, some uses of the term allude to a momentary state (“I’m happy you came to my party”).  Nettle notes that most languages have words equivalent to the English words “joy” or “pleasure” to refer to this state.  He calls this state “level one happiness.” 


We also use the term happiness to refer to something more than momentary enjoyment.  The words “satisfaction” and “contentment” are ways to describe this more lasting state.  This state of subjective well-being tends to be more enduring than an emotion would be, but nonetheless subject to change under some circumstances.  Most psychologists who study happiness are using the term in this sense, which Nettle calls “level two happiness.”  Psychologists usually measure this state by asking people to respond to questions such as, “Generally speaking, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”  Typically, some sort of rating scale follows. 


I’m not sure what answers on such a scale mean.  Is it reflective of a lasting sense of well-being, or is the researcher tapping into a momentary state of mind?  Researchers who ask such questions may imagine that the respondents to their questionnaires think of their level of enjoyment or pleasure over a fairly large period of time, and take a sort of average to determine how satisfied they are.  If this were the case, people would answer such questions consistently from day to day.  This doesn’t seem to be the case, though.  Reports of life satisfaction are very much affected by the person’s immediate mood.  In one study, research participants who had just found a dime (planted by the researcher) on a photocopy machine rated their satisfaction with their lives as higher than participants who hadn’t found a dime.  So, for the moment, finding a dime can make us think our mediocre lives aren’t so bad after all! It seems we don’t really know how satisfied we are with our lives; our view is likely to vary depending on such factors as whether it is a Friday night or a Monday morning, what the traffic was like on our way to work, or whether we’ve had our first cup of coffee yet.


Nettle also describes “level three happiness.”  He is thinking here of eudiamonia, the Greek term that refers to a life well-lived.  It is a life in which one flourishes.  In this sort of life, one fulfills his or her highest potential.  Though acknowledging that the word “happiness” is used in this way, Nettles argues that such a usage doesn’t fit well with what the average person means by the term.  He also thinks that those using this conception of happiness introduce a moral judgment of how the person should live.  I don’t disagree entirely with these points, but I do think it is important to retain this usage as well as the others.  I’ll make the point further when I discuss Aristotle’s use of the term eudiamonia in a subsequent post.