Perspectives on Mental Health Week
When we hear “mental health”, the words ADHD, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression and suicide tend to surface. This is counter-productive. Aristotle’s and the Stoics eudaimonia is a powerful idea. It may be a better frame to reduce suffering.
Supported by 2,500 years of practical philosophy, eudaimonia means good (eu) spirit (daimon). It is founded on the principles of excellence (virtue) and practical wisdom (phronesis). In short, eudaimonia is the drive for and the practical actions of a good life.
Today, we are ready to embrace the scientific power and practical steps of eudaimonia.
If we focus on Mental Health we will gravitate to attacking the symptoms of a eudaimonia failure. We can do better.
Eudaimonia, mostly pushed on us as happiness, is not a right. Eudaimonia is a direction, a choice and responsible action. The eudaimonia drive creates space between suffering and a noble life. Every one of us has the freedom to choose to move with it or not. Eudaimonia is available to all of us. It is freely available in a myriad ways. It requires action and discipline.
What is your narrative?
Consumer marketing spends a fortune selling narratives that undermine the eudaimonia drive. We are led to believe that coke (or other fizzy drink), a new device, a car, an app, a cream, a supplement, a drug or a policy can somehow confer happiness on you. Yes, all these things may stimulate a sugar rush, surge of dopamine or sense of safety. They have no lasting positive effect and mostly leave us poorer, craving the next dose and often sadder and sicker.
An interesting reflection shared by a colleague yesterday was that Nordic countries have both the best political and lifestyle environment along with relatively high suicide rates. His observation was that people take their lives when they realise that all their external needs have been taken care of. The conclusion reached is that their suffering is self-induced. There is no-one to blame. However, when we live in dysfunctional societies we always have something or someone to blame.
No doubt, governments, communities and businesses have a duty to create the conditions under which people can strive for eudaimonia. Many savage, careless and selfish acts can do damage. Leadership has a duty to curtail these behaviours.
It is a fundamental truth, that each one of us shares in the responsibility to own and govern our lives. At the end of the day that comes down to defining and cultivating a eudaimonia narrative. It looks, feels and sounds like this:
“I own my physical wellbeing so I sleep well, stay fit, eat sensibly and hold my body in an alert, engaged and present state. I am responsible for my feelings and I know the destructive impact of fear, anger, sadness and craving. Thus, I seek and stimulate the emotions of calm, passion, kindness, contentment and joy. I know that I am not my thoughts. I watch and challenge my thinking making effort to step back, explore different explanations, respect the perspective of others and stay fully present to the moment with an attitude of realistic optimism.”
Compassion runs amuck
Consistent research shows clearly that there is more eudaimonia to be gained by doing something good for others rather than pursuing your own desires. We expect compassionate behaviour. However, in many cases our good intent has undesirable consequences.
In The Coddling of the American Mind (Lukianoff and Haidt, 2018), we learn how excessive “safetyism” and sensitivity is leading to a fragile generation. The narrative of the I-generation is increasingly: “I am vulnerable and sensitive, you are aggressive and dominant and they (university in this case) should protect me from challenging ideas, diverse points of view and high expectations. I hate you. #me too.” Recently we reviewed Against Empathy (Bloom, 2017) where we learn that sympathy (empathy without constructive action) leads to adverse outcomes. He argues for rational compassion.
Mental Health Week appeals for compassion. We want to reduce the suffering of others. If we focus too much on the symptoms and protection, we will fail to develop the resilience and eudaimonia of others. Just thinking about your sadness can make you sad. Being told you might be depressed or anxious or at risk of suicide can generate fear and undermine the natural bounce, post traumatic growth and connection of others. Our research demonstrates the impact.
Walk carefully into Mental Health week. Remember that the goal is eudaimonia. To achieve this we must understand, own and conquer suffering. We must also encourage people to understand, own and seek their own eudaimonia. This is the noble path that an individual owns. A compassionate community encourages and supports.
The Eudaimonia Drive
Aristotle was abundant and the stoics were ascetic. Every complex organism seeks to optimise its experience of life. Whether through nourishment, bonding, collaborating or enlightenment, humans have a deep drive for eudaimonia. Celebrate and redouble your focus on nurturing this drive and seeking appropriate expression.
Your tools include your body, your emotions and your mind. Understand them and apply them to systematically increase your altitude. Be kind and firm with others. Expect them to own and master their tools. Press against abdication of responsibility, blame and outrage.
Choose eudaimonia. Be virtuous and pragmatic in choosing the path and the related actions that can fuel and drive your journey.
Bounce, grow, connect and flow.