As has been widely reported, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.” The Oxford folks helpfully provide a definition: a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Facebook posts are teeming with selfies. Even an old guy like me who hardly ever posts on Facebook or its many cousins has taken a few of them. Celebrity selfies have a huge following, with whole websites devoted to the latest self-made images of the stars (the accompanying pictures of Justin Beiber and Hilary Duff come from


The coronation of “selfie” as word of the year resulted in a blizzard of cultural analysis. Jennifer O’Connell huffs that the selfie is symptomatic of our ever-increasing narcissism. Navneet Alang responds to the narcissism charge by noting that humans have long sought to document their activities; the only thing that is new is how public that documentary process has become. Rachel Simmons regards selfies as a form of self-affirmation and thus beneficial for a prime group of selfie practitioners, teenage girls. And Noah Berlatsky faults other commenters for claiming that all selfies have the same meaning; in his view, selfies are works of art, and each conveys its own unique message.

Besides thinking about what selfies reveal about the selves of those who take and post them, it is useful to consider how taking selfies shapes the self. In the article cited above, Navneet Alang touches on that question. Here’s what he says:

“Now that so many more people have access to a space to put their identities out there, it may seem like people have suddenly become self-involved, when in fact, all it means is that there is a new more potent medium and shape for an old social fact.
“The selfie is thus a symbol of a slightly shifting sense of self, one that is more aware of how we always function in at least two modes at once, the private and the public, the internal and the external.”

Perhaps the change in awareness has a greater impact than Alang thinks. “Self-consciousness” is the term that social psychologists use to refer to the habitual tendency to be self-aware (the material on self-consciousness that follows are drawn from Steven Franzoi’s Social Psychology, 6th ed.). There are two types of self-consciousness: private self consciousness, the tendency to be aware of private aspects of the self, and public self-consciousness, the tendency to be aware of publically displayed personal features. These traits are distinct, so that a person can be low on both, high on both, or a mixture of the two. Taking a selfie seems to foster public self-awareness, and taking lots of them probably fosters a more habitual state of public self-consciousness (that’s my surmise; Franzoi doesn’t address selfies). Even if taking selfies doesn’t diminish private self-consciousness (whether it does or not is a research question) those who take and post lots of them may develop the characteristics that have been found to be associated with high private self-consciousness. According to Franzoi, these include greater concern about how others view oneself, more conformity to social norms, more concern about one’s physical appearance, and a greater tendency to withdraw from embarrassing situations.

If selfies and other social media phenomena shape the 21st-century self, what direction might that self take? To the extent that these phenomena increase public self-consciousness, it seems that the self might evolve towards being highly aware of its public face, anxious about how that face is perceived, concerned about being physically attractive, averse to bucking group standards, and more isolated. Given these possibilities, I don’t think I’ll be taking and posting many selfies. Since I’m on the subject, though, I’ve posted below one of the few selfies I’ve taken, photographed (the old-fashioned way, with camera and tripod) in St. Paul’s Covent Garden, London.


"The Hammock," by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.  Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“The Hammock,” by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

On my other blog, Beyond Halfway, which is devoted to well-being in the second half of life, I’ve been thinking about retirement—leaving one’s job and no longer working.   What is the appeal of retirement in the first place?  Why not just work as long as we are able?  For some people, it is because they’re tired of how work dominates their days.  They want unscheduled time—time to fish, golf, or take painting classes: time for leisure.  Why do we want leisure, though? Where did we get the idea that leisure is a good thing?  This seems to be the sort of question about values and lifestyles that I focus on in this blog, so I decided to write here about the ideal of leisure.

First, though, what distinguishes leisure from mere inactivity? Philosopher Alex Sager explains that “The English word leisure comes from the Latin licēre through the Anglo-French leisir, meaning ‘to be permitted or allowed’.”  Thus, leisure involves freedom, and the association between the two concepts makes us value leisure more than we do plain inactivity, even if leisure and inactivity may look the same to an outside observer.  Being free to do what one wants would seem to be a good thing, but freedom is often abused. Perhaps only some forms of leisure are conducive to human flourishing. The ancient Greeks certainly thought so.  They valued the freedom that leisure provided, but only if it was used in a particular way.

Plato and Aristotle both thought that some members of society should not work, but should instead have their time free for other pursuits.  Leisure among the aristocrats would provide advantages both for the individual and for society. In contrast, commoners did not have the qualities that would allow them to benefit from a life of leisure.  Those who worked for a living were debased by their work so that, even if they were to pursue on a part-time basis the activities that occupied the majority of the aristocrats’ time, they would gain only limited advantages. According to a journal article by Charles Sylvester of Western Washington University, Greek aristocrats accepted the superiority of leisure over work more than commoners did.  Though the upper classes distained work altogether, the lower classes considered toil to be worthwhile.  Even so, workers did aspire to spend some of their time in the activities associated with leisure.

The leisure sought after by the aristocrats was not mere inactivity or entertainment.  The Greeks used the term leisure in two different senses.  It could mean free time.  It could also mean time during which one is released from mundane tasks to pursue something more important.  What was more important was a liberal education, one that included the study of disciples such as philosophy or music that would lead to the acquisition of wisdom.  According to Plato, such an education prepared its recipients to lead.  The ideal ruler was the “philosopher-king.”

Of course, others have valued leisure for reasons other than the time it gives to pursue a liberal education.  Here is what Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic Theory of the Leisure Class says about the significance of leisure:

“Abstention from labour is the convenient evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of social standing; and this insistence on the meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure. . . . According to well established laws of human nature, prescription presently seizes upon this conventional evidence of wealth and fixes it in men’s habits of thought as something that is in itself substantially meritorious and ennobling; while productive labour at the same time and by a like process becomes in a double sense intrinsically unworthy. Prescription ends by making labour not only disreputable in the eyes of the community, but morally impossible to the noble, freeborn man, and incompatible with a worthy life.”

In other words, if I constantly am engaged in leisure activities such as boating or golfing, doing so shows others that I have no need to work.  Leisure thus demonstrates that I am wealthy; by association, leisure thus takes on something of the sheen that wealth itself has.  Does this association still hold, though?  I wonder if over the last half-century the frantic work pace of the executive has become associated with wealth, while leisure has become associated instead with either unemployment or retirement, neither of which connotes wealth or status.

To conclude this post, then, it seems that leisure hasn’t been valued intrinsically so much as it has been valued for what it leads to, be that the capacity to benefit from a particular form of education or the suggestion that one has wealth.  Neither of these seems closely related to the modern value placed on a leisurely retirement as a reward for years of work.  So is leisure a desirable feature of retirement, or should we give up on the pursuit of leisure?  If we relinquish leisure as an ideal, what, then would be the rationale for retirement?  I’ll consider such issues in a future post on Beyond Halfway.


I wrote earlier about Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of The Great Gatsby , suggesting that, despite its many fine features, the movie doesn’t do a particularly good job of conveying a couple of themes that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel.   I didn’t explain my point concerning one of those themes, so I’ll do so in this post.

St. Augustine said that we are what we love.  Human unhappiness results from disordered love—from having the greatest love for something that is insufficient to satisfy us.  Gatsby’s love for Daisy was disordered in two ways.  First of all, he was putting his ultimate confidence in something temporal—in a human being who would one day die.  Over the five years from when Gatsby had last seen Daisy, he had created an image of Daisy that envisioned something that could provide him with perfect happiness.  He had, in essence, idolized her, in the sense of making her worthy of worship.  His illusion was bound to be shattered.  Here is how Fitzgerald describes the aftermath of Gatsby and Daisy reuniting:

“As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness.  Almost five years!  There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.  It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.  He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.  No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

There is no way that Daisy or anyone could have lived up to the idealized image that Gatsby had created of her.  Daisy was also bound to disappoint in another way.  Not only did she display the ordinary limitations of human flesh, but she was a particularly fickle and untrustworthy manifestation of such flesh.  Her life of privilege made her ill-suited to reciprocate to Gatsby’s love with anything like the dedication and commitment that he showed.  She pulled back from him rather than support him when Tom questions his integrity, and when he died he was waiting anxiously for a phone call from her that never came.  Fitzgerald’s final statement about Daisy lumps her with Tom:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Luhrmann seems to have wanted this tragedy to be seen as a romance, and so he makes Daisy into a weakling overwhelmed by Tom’s bullying rather than the deeply flawed, unreliable person that she is in the novel.  He even gives the suggestion that she was in the process of calling Gatsby at the moment that Gatsby was killed.  Here’s how Christopher Orr of The Atlantic describes how the movie changes Daisy:

“It is with her character that Luhrmann most clearly displays his incomprehension of the work he’s adapting—or perhaps, more cynically, his assumption that audiences would be unable to comprehend it. This Daisy is indecisive rather than “careless,” a co-victim in the story’s central tragedy rather than its principal architect, a smash-ee rather than smasher. Among other consequences, this transformation renders Fitzgerald’s closing judgment on the Buchanans (which Luhrmann reproduces faithfully) all but meaningless.”

Luhrmann seems to suggest that things might have worked out for Gatsby were it not for a few unfortunate circumstances.  That’s not the tale that Fitzgerald tells; his Gatsby is doomed because he has all his incredible capacity for hope on a single person, and one singularly ill-equipped to bear it.  What we put our hope in is as important as whether we have hope.  Luhrmann does us no favors by obscuring this point.


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.