Happiness Lessons of The Ancients: AristotleThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 14 Sep 2020
He gave us biology, physics and drama... but Greek philosopher Aristotle also thought deeply about how humans can flourish and live happy lives of virtue.
Yale professor Tamar Gendler tells Dr Laurie Santos about Aristotle's wellbeing insights and how he recommended taking daily "baby steps" towards becoming the sort of happy, moderate person we aspire to be. A kind of ancient "fake it, 'til you make it" ethos.
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We humans were already pretty complicated creatures, but living in the modern world has added a ton more complication to our lives. In past episodes of The Happiness Lab, we've looked at the effects of things like jobs, school grades, smartphones and even alarm clocks on our well-being. These days we have so much going on, so many things demanding our attention and so many competing desires and emotions that even if you know what you're supposed to be doing, it often feels like it's still hard to stay on track.
It's a bit like being a charioteer holding the reins of too powerful but mismatched horses, you know, who want to reach a happy place. But each of the speeds keeps going off in different directions.
It's exhausting, but you'll only reach your desire destination if you can get the horses to work in harmony and pull together. Now I know what you're thinking.
Chariot's wayward horses. What's that got to do with me navigating the modern world? Well, even though the science of happiness is a relatively new academic field, most of the ideas underpinning all this research are far from recent thinkers. Philosophers and spiritual leaders stretching back thousands of years have figured out many important well-being lessons that are not only hugely relevant for all of us today, but are backed up by the modern science. And that includes my seemingly weird metaphor about the chariot.
And so in this mini season of The Happiness Lab, I want to explore some of the wellbeing concepts that the ancient philosophies and great religions got ripe old school tips that are borne out by the science and ones that have personally helped me in my own quest to be happier, too. So welcome to Happiness Lessons of the Ancients. With me, Dr. Larry Sanders. Aristotle, he is absurd.
Yeah, it seems fine, this is to Margot and now professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. One, two, three, OK, and the volume still looks OK. And also one of my oldest and dearest friends. Does that work?
All right, OK. Tomorrow night, talk pretty much every day. So it's a little bit weird to be recording one of our conversations for you all. And thanks to social distancing, we can't even meet in person right now. So tomorrow's getting a crash course on how to use one of my spare recorders.
OK, let me give them another five. And she's taken to podcasting like a total pro. I am totally ready to go. Hello.
Tomorrow also teaches a super popular class at Yale. It's called Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature. Her class looks way back in history to find philosophical solutions to the problems we all face today.
The idea that the most interesting answer to the question that you're trying to ask would be given by somebody who happens to be on Earth with you right now is a real mistake. Sometimes the most interesting answer is something that somebody gave two thousand years ago or on a completely different continent or in a completely different context.
The story of the chariot and the uncooperative horses is an analogy I find really useful when reason tells me I should be shooting for my happiness goals, but my desires, doubts and emotions keep pulling me off course. It's a powerful analogy, and it comes from the work of ancient Greek philosophers, one of the areas Tammar teaches in her course.
There was a period about twenty five hundred years ago in ancient Greece where a whole bunch of really smart people directed their attention to a set of really interesting and important questions. And society structured itself in such a way that those individuals were given the freedom and the leisure and the luxury to think about those questions as their profession. What they did for their job was think about what does it mean for human beings to flourish? And the community of individuals talking to one another about that question meant that they made more progress on it than other people have at other times.
And so it's a great luxury to be able to help ourselves to their wisdom.
So today we're going to focus in on one of the ancients who, in my view, is really considered sort of the father of positive psychology, this field of the science of well-being, and that is Aristotle. So give us Aristotle one on one. Who was Aristotle and why was he so important?
So Aristotle was a guy from the countryside. He didn't come from Athens. And his parents died when he was quite young. So he was an orphan. And when he was 17, he was brought to Athens to study in Plato's Academy. And he liked school so much that he stayed there as a student for another twenty years. And Aristotle was just one of the greatest polymath thinkers in the history of Western civilization. In addition to the work that he did in philosophy, he's the inventor of physics as a field of biology, as a field.
He was a great theorist of poetry, a great theory of drama and theater. And one of the major activities that he undertook was to try to figure out what a well lived human life might look like.
And so he came up with two concepts that I think are super important when we try to think about happiness in the modern day. And so one of these concepts was what he called eudaimonia, like what is eudaimonia?
Yeah. So eudaimonia has as its middle word, the word Dayman or spirit. And if you've read the His Dark Materials books, which are a wonderful series of children's books, you'll notice that the spirit animal that people have in those books is called their dayman. So eudaimonia is roughly spiritual, flourishing spiritual wellbeing, the thriving of what some traditions call the human soul, what you might call the human mind or human spirit.
And so when we think of eudaimonia, we think of sort of spiritual flourishing. But the way Aristotle thought of eudaimonia was a little bit different than we often think about happiness these days. Right. Like it wasn't really happiness in the moment. It was kind of a bigger, deeper, almost like moral happiness. Right.
You might think of two distinct notions of happiness. There are many, but here are two. One is what we might call hedonistic happiness, the indulgence of short lived pleasures. So the pleasures of eating or of sex. And that's an important part of what it is to be a human being, taking pleasure in the physical world around you. But Aristotle was interested in a. Richer and more robust and more lasting notion of what happiness would be, not just short lived, hedonistic pleasure, but long lived, thriving, and he had a picture that there was a certain function for which human beings were ideally built.
So just as the function of a knife is to cut well and the function of a paperweight is to hold down papers, the function of a human being is to be able to express virtue and reason. That is, to participate in the things that are the highest form of the good in the world. And so eudaimonia is a kind of thriving that involves spending as much of your time and as complete of your activity in a state where you are doing things that are good, that are virtuous, that are pleasurable to you because you have turned yourself into someone who takes pleasure in virtue.
And so eudaimonia, in contrast to hedonism, is a kind of lasting rather than short lived pleasure.
And it's so cool that Aristotle came up with this so long ago. Right, because this is what's being borne out in a lot of the modern science of happiness. Right. On this podcast, we talk a lot about data suggesting that your circumstances don't necessarily make you happy. You know, you could be rich and have the opportunities to engage in all kinds of hedonistic pleasure. But a lot of folks self report that that leaves them kind of empty, that they're kind of missing something.
And so Aristotle was kind of on top of a life two thousand years ago. Right?
Well, it's really interesting that each era uses a particular mode of understanding as its best way of making sense of the world. And one of the things I try to teach in my course is that there's lots of methodologies to coming to the same insight. And so neuroscience gives us one way of looking at what is it for us to be in a state of happiness or harmony. And behavioral psychology gives us another way of testing and measuring that and literary representations.
Give us another way of identifying this and the kind of work that Aristotle did. A speculative, systematic, philosophical exploration of what he observed in those around him is a methodology that very often brings us to the same sorts of insights that we might get from literature or neuroscience or behavioral psychology.
I think those the fact that you need to do that kind of philosophical inquiry for these insights is important. Right. Because another thing that comes up on this podcast is that we often have incorrect notions of the kinds of things that make us happy. Right. When we do a super fast introspection, we can think, oh, I just want all the hedonistic pleasures and some good food and sex and nice stuff to watch on Netflix. But in fact, if you really do a deep dive, that seems to be not what works.
I think the idea that the surface gives you one kind of information, but that assembling a lot of surface phenomena and then looking at what lies more deeply behind them gives you a deeper understanding, is an incredibly important insight. And a lot of what the philosophical work that happened in ancient Athens twenty five hundred years ago does is to say, don't get deluded by this particular momentary sense. Look instead at how these things pattern together and you will have a deeper understanding of what matters to human beings.
And so Aristotle, using that same approach, came up with a different concept that I think is important for modern science and happiness, which is kind of different thing that we get wrong, which is how our knowledge can help us and how we get to know about happiness. And this was his idea of Francis. So what was this concept of Francis?
So Francis is often translated as practical wisdom to understand what that means. Think about the contrast between what we sometimes call the theoretical and what we call the practical or the difference between knowing that something is a case and knowing how to do something. So if you're trying to figure out how to do something like throw a baseball or play the piano or respond in a calm and temperate fashion, when you're under a situation of agitation, you can have a theoretical understanding of it.
You can understand lots of things about the physics of baseballs or about the acoustical properties of a piano, or you can read a therapy book and understand what it is when people respond calmly. That's theoretical wisdom. But the theoretical wisdom doesn't give you the capacity to engage in the action you want to engage in. In order to do that, you actually need. What Aristotle would call practical wisdom, a kind of skill, the skill that comes from practicing the activity about which you want to make progress.
And so Aristotle really thought that eudaimonia isn't just kind of something that we're born with or something we can kind of get to. Theoretically, he really thought it was something that you get to and a skill based way. Right.
So Aristotle thought the strategy by which we gain this kind of deeper, thriving, the spiritual well-being, the eudaimonia is the strategy of making ourselves into the kind of people who are virtuous and who take pleasure in virtue. So it's a kind of self education project of building up in yourself the kind of soul you want to have. You make yourself into the person that you want to be. And Aristotle is really aware of the way in which that can be self reinforcing.
You want yourself to become a particular kind of person. You practice being that kind of person and doing that kind of activity thereby becomes pleasurable to you.
And this is something that's also really nicely borne out in the modern science. In one of our podcast episodes, I interviewed a scientist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness. She has this wonderful quote that, you know, just as you learn a violin by playing it or just as you kind of put a lot of work into raising a child, if you want to bump up your happiness levels, you actually have to put the work in.
And that work isn't just kind of theoretical work. It's actually engaging with it in a real way and actually building up your happiness, kind of like a skill set, like from the ground up.
So the quote that you gave from Sonja Lyubomirsky is actually a direct reference to Aristotle, who famously says that we become builders by building and we become harpists by playing the harp. And then he goes on to say that just as the way you learn to be a builder is by building buildings and the way you learn to play the harp is by playing the harp, so to says Aristotle. We become just by doing just actions temperate, by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.
That is the way that we come to have practical wisdom is by practicing the skill that we want to cultivate so that it becomes natural to us.
And Aristotle also had good ideas about which particular kinds of actions we should want to practice. Right. Like what are the kinds of actions that will actually make us a virtuous and therefore spiritually happy person? When we get back from the break, we'll dive into that specific ways that Aristotle thought we could achieve happiness. And what we'll see is that he devoted to whole chapters to something you might not think is that important.
The Happiness Lab. We'll be right back. So people who listen to the podcast hear a lot about the kinds of things they can do to be happy that are borne out by modern science, when Aristotle thought about spiritual well-being, this idea of eudaimonia, what are the kinds of things he thought we should be paying attention to? What are the sorts of actions he wanted us to engage with?
So he was really interested in developing character. That was what he called moderate in exactly the right ways. And he viewed the virtues that help us thrive as being cases of behavior that are intermediate between two extremes. So it's easiest to think about this in the case of something like bravery, where you have an extreme of being a coward, you have an extreme of being reckless. And in between those two things is bravery, which Aristotle thinks of as the perfect moderate virtue.
Or with regard to your character, you could be somber or you could be a buffoon, or you could be somebody with a good sense of humor. And I love this idea of the middle way because it fits with some of the things that we talk about on the podcast, which is this idea that, you know, you got to take baby steps towards the sorts of actions you want to engage in to become happier. Right. If I tell you that, you know, gratitude is really important, for example, you don't want to so double down on gratitude that you're stressing yourself out.
So it's engaging in virtue, but almost in a in a moderate and a baby step sort of way.
And the nice thing about thinking of virtue as the middle way is that you always know what the next thing to do is. If you're aiming to be brave and you're a cowardly person, you don't have to get all the way over to bravery. You just have to take a small step towards bravery and you're moving to the middle. So by giving us the center to move towards, we can make progress without being overwhelmed at the prospect of what it is that we need to change.
We just need to change a little bit and then the next day a little bit more. And as Aristotle likes to point out, this becomes self reinforcing. He says abstaining from pleasure is makes us become temperate. And once we've become temperate, we're more capable of abstaining from pleasures. It's similar with bravery, habituation and standing firm in frightening situations makes us brave. And once we've become brave, we're more capable of standing firm. So if you want to be a brave person, act the way a brave person acts and you will manifest bravery and you will be reinforced in your experience about how pleasurable and possible it is for you to act bravely.
So Aristotle talked a lot about different virtues, and that's one of the reasons his book was really a book not about happiness or eudaimonia, but it was a book about ethics. Right. So so talk about this important book and why it was so powerful in Western thought.
Sure. This is a book called The Nyko Making Ethics, and it's a book in which Aristotle tries to spell out what is it to live a virtuous life. But his notion of virtue is a really broad one. He means not just a life that is a moral life, but a life that for the individual, brings them this eudaimonia thriving and happiness, and that for the society contributes to a society in which there's thriving and happiness. So this is a book about how to live well, morally, how to live well happily, and how to live well in a way that is part of a harmonious society where all are in a position to thrive.
And this is where I think the science really backs Aristotle up. Right. Because one thing we know is even if you're just shooting for the happy life, the data really suggests that what you want to do is to live a moral life. You want to live a life where you're doing nice things for others. You want to live a life where you're really feeling connected to other people, where you're doing something that is a job that gives you meaning. So in some sense, even if you were just shooting for the eudaimonia part, you'd get these other two parts as well, right?
That's exactly right. Aristotle thinks that human beings are creatures where it's possible to become someone in whom what gives you pleasure is causing other people to thrive and do well. So for Aristotle, a healthy, thriving, virtuous individual is a person who takes pleasure in others, also having lives that are filled with meaning, who takes pleasure in being a situation where those around them are also doing well. And that's one of the reasons that Aristotle devoted. Two whole chapters in this important book to something that we might not think about when we think about virtue and ethics necessarily.
Right. So so what were those sort of two chapters about?
Yeah, it's a great question. So this book, which has 10 chapters, there were 10 papyrus scrolls on which the book was written, devotes chapters eight and nine to the topic of friendship. And he thinks friendship is incredibly important throughout our entire lives. He says the young need friendship to keep them from ever the old need friendship to care for them and to support the actions that fail because of weakness and those in their prime need friendship to do fine actions, for they are more capable of understanding and acting when to go together.
And his idea of friendship was in part for a kind of hedonistic pleasure. You know, you get some utility out of it. But he also thought that friends could affect our happiness in a deeper and more meaningful way as well.
Actually, he distinguishes among three different kinds of friendship. There's a kind of friendship, a relatively shallow kind of friendship, which is friendship based on utility. I'm friends with you because I get something out of it and you're friends with me because you get something out of it. There's a second kind of friendship which is a little bit richer, which is a friendship based on pleasure, where I enjoy your company and you enjoy my company. The kind of friendship that Aristotle is really interested in is a friendship that's based on mutual appreciation of one another's deep values.
And whereas the first two kinds of friendship are accidental, they're limited in depth. They don't last a long time. A friendship that's based on a deep appreciation of how my being in your presence makes me a better person and your being in my presence makes you a better person is a kind of friendship that's lasting. And it fits with Aristotle's general picture that what we want to do is to get ourselves into self reinforcing cycles where we're doing something that works.
And because we're doing it and it works, we keep doing it. So Aristotle calls a friend a second self, and he thinks that one of the ways in which we can help ourselves cultivate practical wisdom is by finding friends who support us in that activity. So if I want to be brave, I say to you, my virtuous, deep friend, let's work on bravery together. And I reinforce your bravery. You reinforce my bravery. I get an extra self to help me remain committed to what I want to do, not just theoretically, but practically, not just in my head, but also in my actions.
And this, too, fits with a lot of what we know about the science of habits. Right. You know, when you're trying to stick to a new virtuous habit or even just some habit that will improve your happiness. So you want to exercise more, you want to meditate or write in your gratitude journal. One of the things you can do from the habit literature is to find social support. Write you find a friend who's good at that, who you can kind of say, hey, I'm going to do this with you, and then you do that together.
Which is funny to tell you tomorrow, because you are my my exercise buddy, my hiking buddy, my yoga buddies.
We had for that other Lori. Lori is the person. In fact, when Lori had a broken leg, I discovered that my second self had stopped hiking and so my first self stopped hiking. So it was a great relief to me when your legs got strong enough again for us to walk together. But yes, this idea that one of the ways that you can stick to your commitments is to surround yourself by others who are also committed to those things is part of really every wisdom traditions.
So in the Buddhist wisdom tradition, there's a notion that they call right association, that is, surround yourself by others who are also committed to this path towards spiritual enlightenment. And almost every religious tradition involves communal activity of a kind that says put yourself in a setting where others are also trying to pursue that kind of spiritual transcendence. And in fact, that was actually the inspiration for one of the requirements, the sort of happiness practices that I did with my class.
One of the things I asked my students to do is to take what I call a strength state where you hang out with a friend and you both try to pursue some virtue that you want to get better at some strength that you want to enhance. But the idea is to do it with somebody else. And in fact, there's evidence for Marty Seligman's group that this act of doing a strength date with somebody can kind of give a nice boost to your well-being.
So you've been a scholar of Aristotle for some time now. Have you been following the middle way, using his insights to go after your own eudaimonia? Pretty much everything that Aristotle instructs us to do is a part of my own attempt at self-improvement, the recognition that what I needed to do to change a bad habit was just to move a little bit towards a better version of it was an incredible relief to me as I found myself feeling overwhelmed by changes that I want to make and the idea that in order to become somebody who had virtues that I wanted, all I had to do was start acting as if I already had those virtues was unbelievably liberating and transformative for me.
What about the friend part?
And for almost every change that I wanted to make, the realization that I had a second self available to help me do that. Most often in things at home, that partner was my spouse or one of my children. But for the big changes that I wanted to make in my life, my friendship actually with you, Laurie, was one of the factors that really enabled me to make those changes. And I feel like the combination of Aristotle's wisdom from twenty five hundred years ago and your friendship from one and a half decades has been the key to allowing me to thrive and flourish.
Well, that is sweet to hear you say and right back at you, because I feel like when I think about the people who are pleasurable friends or friends of utility versus the ones that are real friends of meaning friends that get me towards virtue, you are right up there, too.
So, yeah, thank you. And I just I mean, I hadn't realized it really has been 15 years. That's disturbing. But it makes.
The things tomorrow has taught me about Aristotle have helped me a ton in my own quest to be happier and more virtuous things like the need to take action to become the person you want to be and the fact that all those tiny baby steps matter a lot. But of course, one episode isn't going to be enough to explore everything the ancient Greeks thought about achieving happiness. So I hope you'll join me in tomorrow again next time when we introduce you to a different Greek thinker, Plato, and his advice for how you can control that horse drawn chariot.
I keep talking about. If you've enjoyed the show, I'd be super grateful if you could spread the word by leaving a rating interview. It really does help other listeners find us. And don't forget to tell your friends. The Happiness Lab is co-written and produced by Ryan Dilli. The show was mastered by Evan Viola and our original music was composed by Zachary Silver, special thanks to the entire Pushkin crew, including Mia LaBelle, Kali Migliore, Heather Fain, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Benyus.
The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr. Laurie Santos.