It is also the truest to our nature as social beings. Let me explain…
By Pura Vida co-founder Ocean aka Martin Ebeling
Think of a time when your life went really well, when you were really happy. Who were the people who witnessed and supported you? Who did you lend your support to during this time? I believe that co-flourishing, growing and expanding in concert with those around us, is the deepest form of happiness of which we are capable. It is also the truest to our nature as social beings. Let me explain…
We all want to be happy, right? Exactly. That’s why humans have spent a lot of time thinking about happiness and debating its true nature. One key distinction that emerged from the discussion is that between hedonistic and eudaimonistic conceptions of happiness. Hedonism posits that happiness is simply an accumulation of pleasurable experiences. Seek pleasure while avoiding pain and you will have a happy life. And yes, maybe that’s true. But will it also be the best possible life we can live? Or is there more to the good life than experiencing pleasure?
This is where eudaimonistic conceptions of happiness come in. Eudaimonia is a Greek term that refers to well-being in a wider sense. What does it really mean to live well? Experiencing pleasure is certainly a good thing, but is it all that we need to live well? Think about the following thought experiment:
I offer to hook you up to a virtual reality device that perfectly simulates experiences that cause you to feel pleasure. If you stay connected to the device for the rest of your life, you will have only pleasurable experiences. Sounds pretty attractive, doesn’t it? And who wouldn’t want to use the device at least occasionally to escape from the more gloomy aspects of human existence. But here is the catch: my offer is to connect you to the device only if you are willing to stay connected to it forever. Once you immerse yourself in the virtual pleasure machine there is no way back. Would you still do it?
Most people would reject this offer, and for good reasons. Pleasure is not the only thing we seek in life, we also pursue things like authenticity and meaning. Authenticity and meaning, however, rely on there being something real about our experiences. After all, a relationship is only meaningful if the other person really exists. Interestingly, the pursuit of authenticity and meaning often causes us to forgo experiences of pleasure. It is a peculiar fact about humans that they willingly sacrifice pleasure for something deeper, namely the sense of satisfaction that comes from pursuing higher ideals and living a meaningful and authentic life.
Philosophers and modern day researchers of happiness use the term “flourishing” to describe this eudaimonistic conception of happiness. Living well, according to them, means flourishing. They cash out the terms in different ways, albeit taking cues from one another. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that flourishing means living a virtuous life, i.e. developing your innate human potential. The positive psychology movement developed this idea further. We flourish, they claim, when we live “...within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience." (1) What they have in common is the idea that the best life we can live is a life of development, growth and expansion. We flourish when we become the best possible self we can be. That could be developing certain strengths and talents that we might have, our capacity to hold difficult emotions and to bounce back after setbacks, or learning how to adopt different perspectives and dream bigger dreams. As we outgrow the narrow confines of our old self, we expand into more abundance, wisdom and compassion.
This is a beautiful story but it is incomplete in one fundamental aspect. It rests on a foundational idea of western thought and psychology, an idea that we might call the myth of the individual. The myth of the individual at the heart of our thinking about happiness is the (mistaken) idea that we are individuals.
What?, you might ask, isn’t this one of the most basic aspects of our existence that we are indeed individuals? Don’t I have a self with firm contours to my body, mind and entire being? The answer is yes and no, but mostly no. Of course you have a body and a mind and we are accustomed to referring to you by your name, indicating that there is indeed someone we identify as the individual person that is you. But beyond this social practice it is far less obvious how to support our claim to individuality.
What is more, there is plenty of evidence that the boundaries of our selves are much more porous than we ordinarily assume. Some of this evidence comes from modern science. Psychologists use the term “emotional contagion” to describe the phenomenon that emotions can spread from one person to the next without anyone actively intending them to. They also speak of co-regulation as the dynamic process between individuals responsible for modifying their emotions. The picture that emerges is that emotions are no private events. What you do and feel has an effect on me (and vice versa), and our emotional lives are public and interconnected in this very important sense.
Neuroscientists give us even more reasons to believe that we should think of ourselves not as neatly individuated but as interdependent beings. Not only is there no evidence for a stable self (to the contrary, the sense of self seems to be a function of brain activity that is quite sporadic) but to experience the world and ourselves as we do, we actually need others to teach us the concepts that our brain uses to construct reality. In the words of the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barret, “it takes more than one human brain to create a human mind” REF.
If we are not individuals, what are we? In Buddhist teachings, we find the vocabulary to make sense of our interdependence. Buddhists speak of interbeing as our mode of existence. The simplest way to explain the meaning of the term is to think of a rainbow. A rainbow is a bunch of water molecules in the air which are met by light and the resulting spectacle is perceived by a conscious observer. If you take any of these constituent elements away, you lose the rainbow. Importantly, the rainbow is also nothing apart from these elements but is made up by all of them in conjunction. Its interbeing is captured in the phrase, it is because its parts (in their unique constellation) are.
Similarly, we are because everything else that comes together to make our existence possible also exists in the right constellation. I have the body that I have because of the genetic makeup of my parents (and the life experiences that triggered epigenetic processes determining a specific gene expression), the food I eat to nourish it, the air I breathe to ensure its functioning, the gut bacteria that helps me to break down nutrients in food, and so much more. I have the mind that I have because of my upbringing and social conditioning that I have received through my family, my peers, and society at large, because of teachers who have instilled in it certain ideas and a culture that preserved them sometimes over many generations. I find it fascinating that a text written by a person long dead can move us deeply and inspire us to think about the world and life differently. All of these are examples of interbeing, of co-constitutive relationships. The idea of interbeing for the domain of social relationships is captured in the phrase, “I am because you are. You are because I am.”
Aristotle, who inspired positive psychology and informed its understanding of happiness as flourishing, was on point when he stated that humans are social animals. If we are to overcome the myth of the individual, we need to acknowledge that we are social creatures all the way down. We live entangled lives, in complex relationships with our fellow human beings, our gut bacteria, the food we eat, and the ecosystems that support our existence on this planet.
If we discard the myth of the individual and take seriously what psychologists, neuroscientists and wisdom traditions teach us, then how should we think about happiness and the good life? I believe that we should leave behind the idea of flourishing as pertaining to the life of individual persons and endorse the idea of co-flourishing as pertaining to groups and communities, humanity as a whole, and all life on this planet. I flourish when every node in the network that makes me who I am also flourishes. Together we rise.
Thus, when it comes to our own happiness and that of those around us with whom our lives are inextricably interwoven the all-important question becomes, “How might we co-flourish?”
In a way, this is what Pura Vida Festival Retreat is all about. We aim to find answers to the question of how we might steer our minds and bodies towards greater well-being, with an awareness that in doing so, we become a resource to others. We aim to build community and teach the skills for meaningful and authentic relationships with an awareness that healthy relationships create upward spirals in our lives. Finally, we explore how we might co-flourish with the earth and the ecosystems sustaining our existence on this planet with an awareness that we depend in existential ways on the greater web of life. In trying to live a better life, then, we hope to also create a better world.
Fredrickson, B. L.; Losada, M. F. (2005). "Positive affect and complex dynamics of human flourishing". American Psychologist. 60 (7): 678–686. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.60.7.678. PMC 3126111. PMID 16221001.