European positive psychology conference in Copenhagen: eudaimonia, Lego, morality & kayaking (third post)
Last updated on 9th July 2010
Yesterday was the second full day of this "5th European conference on positive psychology". I have already blogged about the first evening and first full day. I didn't go in for the initial two plenary presentations on occupational psychology and on Danish society. I spent the time reading and writing about material I'd been exposed to on the first day. Later yesterday someone said that I'd missed a couple of excellent talks. I probably had. Managing one's learning at conferences like these is a real challenge. It would be so easy to leave saying something like "Wasn't that a fantastic conference!" and then find six months later that one had taken away nothing of substance that was actually affecting one's work or how helpful one was for one's clients. Writing this blog is a good way for me to digest better what I'm taking in. For information about the talks I missed, see Bridget Grenville-Cleave's excellent blog.
So I walked in to the conference at the first coffee break and had a chance to look at the day's poster presentations - see the detailed conference "Book of Abstracts". Then to a symposium "What is eudaimonia, and what do we do about it?". The abstracts book description of this symposium reads: "Eudaimonia is drawing ever-increasing attention, and yet the literature on this topic contains a multitude of differing, sometimes inconsistent, definitions and perspectives. Eudaimonia has variously been defined as a form of well-being (e.g., feelings of personal expressiveness, interest, meaning, transcendence), and/or a way of behaving (e.g., living in accordance with values, using the best in oneself, seeking personal growth, caring for entities beyond oneself, being deeply engaged, being true to oneself). Furthermore, eudaimonia has been operationalized in various ways, e.g., in terms of subjective experiences or aims vs. objective personal qualities, as a state vs. a trait, and as associated with specific activities vs. a type of motivation that can underlie any activity. The panelists in this round-table represent a cross-section of the differing views on eudaimonia, and will tackle the following questions: How should eudaimonia be defined conceptually and operationally? What problems are associated with the use of eudaimonic concepts? And what are the most important directions for future research? The panelists will present their personal views on each question and respond to the perspectives of the other panelists. Time will be reserved for questions and comments from those in attendance. The panelists are: Alan Waterman, a leading eudaimonia researcher who discusses eudaimonic well-being in terms of self-realization values and feelings of personal expressiveness. Joar Vittersø, a leading eudaimonia researcher who discusses eudaimonia in terms of feelings like interest which signify growth rather than homeostasis. Veronika Huta, who has recently published work aiming to address some limitations of the eudaimonia literature, and who discusses eudaimonia in terms of motives for activities. And Ilona Boniwell, who is developing a model which organizes and integrates various perspectives, including the cognitive, affective and volitional dimensions of eudaimonia."
I found attending this symposium fascinating and helpful. Sadly Ilona Boniwell didn't make it, so we just had three presenters. There was more than enough material though. Eudaimonia is often contrasted with hedonism. Hedonism tends to be a more familiar concept to people. As Wikipedia puts it "The basic idea behind hedonistic thought is that pleasure is the only thing that has intrinsic value. This is often used as a justification for evaluating actions in terms of how much pleasure and how little pain (i.e. suffering) they produce. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize this net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)". In contrast eudaimonia probably translates best as "flourishing". Apparently it derives from the word "eu" meaning "good" or "well being" and the word "daimon" meaning "spirit" or "minor deity" (and used by extension to mean one's lot or fortune). So an over-simplified view might be that hedonism is all about maximising pleasure & minimising pain, while eudaimonism is all about flourishing through devoting oneself to living the "best one can be". As Oscar Wilde put it though "The truth is rarely pure and never simple". The Wikipedia article on eudaimonia helps to clarify this - pointing out, for example, that Epicurus (a key hedonistic philosopher) argued that to best maximise pleasure & minimise pain one should in fact lead an eudaimonistic life! Interestingly modern research tends to support this view. See for example my blog post "Ways to happiness and life satisfaction". Also interestingly - especially as much hedonistic philosophy focuses on reducing pain as much as or more than maximising pleasure - one could argue that Buddhism with its focus on reducing suffering, has parallels with hedonistic ideas! Hah, there's a potentially unpopular thought - Buddha and Epicurus as fellow-thinkers highlighting the value of eudamonia as a skilful way of promoting hedonism.
I do find it fascinating that early Greek philosophers seem to have become so influential again as scientific research on happiness and wellbeing has blossomed. I read philosophy for two years at university before changing to medicine, so I guess I looked to philosophy first for ideas about what constitutes a "good" or "well-lived" life before turning to a more research-based exploration. So what did I take away from this seminar? That eudaimonia is not a precise term. That it is used in somewhat different ways by different ancient philosophers and by different modern researchers. That there seems some value in contrasting state and trait - in other words my current state, how I am feeling/thinking/acting just now may be characterised by more/less hedonia (pleasure, happiness) and/or eudaimonia (interest, engagement). In a similar way, how I generally live my life over time - the trait - is also characterised by more/less hedonia and/or eudaimonia. I found it useful too to see that in the short term, eudaimonic and hedonic behaviours may apparently be in opposition. I eat this cream cake now hedonically but go against my eudaimonic commitment to becoming healthier. In the longer term though acting eudaimonically tends to produce greater hedonia/wellbeing/happiness than repeated short term hedonic acts. This was well known by the Greek philosophers - hence Epicurus's position that, in fact, a eudaimonic life is a hedonic life - and this is also shown in modern research as discussed in "Ways to happiness and life satisfaction". I don't want to be too "puritanical" about this. The ability to enjoy, appreciate, savour is also of real value - see, for example, the post "Savouring, mindfulness, flow & positive emotions". Finally, for this post on eudaimonia, I also took away the value of seeing eudaimonia both as a broad concept - what helps us flourish as individuals (and as organizations) - and as a narrower concept - what would it be for this particular individual to be the best they can be. So broader views on flourishing include ideas from Self-Determination Theory (see handouts in "Wellbeing, time management & self-determination"), Carol Ryff's work on wellbeing (see handouts in "Wellbeing & calming skills"), and Corey Keyes's extension of this work (see yesterday's conference post). The narrower, more personalised view of eudaimonia is well-illustrated by the what the Hasidic Rabbi Susya is reported to have said shortly before his death - "When I get to heaven, they will not ask me 'Why were you not Moses?' but 'Why were you not Susya?'" In this narrower sense, eudaimonia addresses this key existential question - how can I live and express my own unique life as fully/excellently/authentically as possible? Here it overlaps into the current positive psychology interest in individual strengths addressed elsewhere in this conference report, and ideas illustrated in handouts like the "Respected figures exercise" and "Goals for roles" questionnaires given in "Wellbeing, time management & self-determination". Good. The state-trait idea of hedonia & eudaimonia, the realization that Greek philosophers and modern researchers all have somewhat differing views, and the narrower and broader conceptions of trait eudaimonia, are all useful. And it's important to remember as a therapist - and as an individual - that flourishing is so crucial. When our level of wellbeing is greater, this is valid and welcome in its own right. It also significantly reduces the chances of relapse into previously experienced psychological disorders, and it also is associated with more effective functioning in multiple areas - relationships, work, and personal life. This is not just dusty philosophy, it's highly practical and highly relevant now.
Since this conference is in Denmark, the home of Lego, and since my son and grandson have both highly appreciated playing with Lego - I thought I'd indulge myself and go to the delightfully named Mads Bab's workshop entitled "Play your strengths - telling the story of our strengths". The abstract book stated "The workshop will introduce participants to a new and fun way of discovering strengths and how these can be deployed towards goals. Lego bricks are combined with a theoretical foundation based on strengths psychology, appreciative inquiry, self-determination, self-efficacy, constructivism, play and elements of narrative psychology. Participants build their identity, best possible selves, strengths and aspirations in Lego and create stories through interacting with the models". I didn't personally take an awful lot away from this workshop, BUT I did get to play with Lego bricks which I got to keep! Bliss!? For my own work, I think it has been a useful reminder that we don't have to constantly just use words. I've written before about the potential value of other media - see, for example, an earlier post "Therapeutic use of film, music & poetry".
Then in the afternoon I went to William Damon's surprisingly inspiring presentation "How morality works - psychologically - and why". It wasn't so much Damon's insightful comments about psychological aspects of morality that really struck me, as his reports on investigations of individuals' purpose or mission. A link back to the earlier discussion of eudaimonia - and fascinating that in Greek thought too, eudaimonia was deeply linked with "arete" translated as "goodness, excellence or virtue". For more on this see, for example, Damon's book with Gardner & Csikszentmihalyi "Good work: when excellence and ethics meet".
... and then later in the afternoon I skived off to a little kayak hiring place I'd noticed walking between conference venues. I was a little nervous about potentially capsizing with the wash from the bigger boats, but it turned out fine. Such a good way of exploring Copenhagen through little canals, paddling gently in the sunshine. Lovely. And for a report on the last morning of the conference, click on "National comparisons, interest conflicts & strengths again".