Republished February 2024
(A Toastmasters Project)
Originally published in Forte 2018-2019
Have you ever read the story of Candide? Published by Voltaire in 1759, the satire spins the tale of an optimistic young man who embarks on his life’s journey believing his teacher’s philosophy that everything in life happens for the best. His faith gradually erodes as he and his companions endure an endless wave of horrendous catastrophes until he finally decides that he can no longer rationalize the tenets of his learning with the realities of life.
Today, when we’re steadily besieged with social media messages to think positive, we can still find some truth in the tale of Candide. Not to say that there isn’t great merit in positive thinking. We should definitely try to find joy in the small things, be grateful for what we have and share our positivity with others whenever possible. To be stoic in the face of adversity is no small achievement.
How often have you seen one of those memes that says, “I don’t want much. I just want to be happy.”
Being happy isn’t “much”? What nonsense. Being happy is huge. Enormous.
Aristotle used the term “eudemonia” to signify the contented state of being healthy and happy. Other readings indicate that “flourishing and prosperous” may be a better translation of the Greek word than “healthy and happy”. Either way, yes please. We want that. We’re not greedy, you understand. We don’t want it ALL THE TIME, just most of the time, so our sum total of positivity puts us comfortably on the “satisfied” rather than the “miserable” scale.
Putting aside the fact that “eudemonia” rather sounds like a disease, how do we achieve it? Science says that genetics play a huge part in our happiness quotient. We are by nature either optimists or pessimists, and that raw material is responsible for 50% of our emotional state. Within that basic infrastructure, we are all subject to varying degrees of what is called “trait neuroticism”. Those with high TN are more sensitive to stress, experience it more often and more intensely, and take longer to recover than their low TN counterparts. What all that means is that we’re not on a level playing field. Some of us have a significant head start when it comes to chasing that bluebird of happiness.
Let’s revisit Aristotle for a moment. Eudemonia is “healthy and happy” or “flourishing and prosperous”. Is Healthy an attitude? Flourishing? Prosperous? Nope. Those are in the 10% circumstances category. Aristotle lived a long time ago in a different world, but he was all about goals and his wisdom is still relevant today. He offered that the purpose of human life is to achieve the end goal, namely living a good life. One does that by acquiring all the things one needs to flourish and prosper on the physical, intellectual and moral planes. One needs luck to pull that off, and health. In Aristotle’s world, one also needed to be a male of a certain social class to live a good life. Women, children, persons of low standing, servants and slaves were property and therefore unable to acquire the necessary virtues. Thankfully that part is no longer relevant.
Let's throw all these wise words from scientists and psychologists and philosophers into a blender, and give it a whirl. This is what they’re telling us.
What, you may ask, became of Candide?
He and a tribe of friends withdrew from society and moved to the country,
turning away from the “all is for the best” philosophy of the time.
They cultivated gardens and busied themselves with work to build a community. They were happy.