Two models of well-being: active and passive

There are two main philosophies of well-being: active and passive.

The active philosophy of well-being tells us that happiness and flourishing come from striving and achievement. It’s best embodied by Aristotle, who defines happiness as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”. The key word there is activity – Aristotle thinks we are happiest when we are actively striving towards the common good, engaging with our society, exploring the natural world, adding to our knowledge. We also see this active philosophy of well-being in, for example, Positive Psychology’s concept of ‘flow’ – those moments when we are utterly, blissfully absorbed in what we’re doing.

Aristotle’s philosophy is attractive partly because it’s a philosophy of desire. It doesn’t tell us we have to abandon all desires, as Stoicism or Buddhism do. Rather it suggests we need to direct our natural desire for happiness to its proper goal. It also takes account of the external things that make up the good life – a family, a fulfilling career, a free society – and tells us we should take these things seriously and strive to build them and protect them.

The downside of this philosophy, however, is that we can feel we’re never at rest, that we’re constantly setting ourselves new challenges, new mountains to climb, and we can end up feeling a bit worn out and not, in fact, at peace.

The passive philosophy of well-being tells us that happiness is the absence of desire, the absence of striving. It’s best embodied by the Epicureans, for whom happiness is being at rest and at peace, without feeling any pain; or by the Stoics, for whom happiness is a virtuous self that is perfectly at rest and free from all attachment and aversion; or by the Buddhists, who likewise have an ideal of the sage resting in their mind without grasping at or pushing away the things of the world.

The downside of this philosophy is that we can become too detached from the world, too monastically withdrawn, and unengaged in our society in a meaningful way. You could accuse it of lacking civic virtue – what does the Epicurean, blissfully at rest in his philosophical commune, do for his society, and for those less fortunate than him. Is apathy really a worthwhile end state?

I am conscious of these two philosophies of well-being at the moment, having spent the last month promoting my book. I feel, at the end of the month, rather tired, and in need of a holiday. I also feel that there’s a paradox in writing a book about the good life which one then feels one has to relentlessly publicise, grasping at every possible opportunity in order to get yourself heard in a very noisy marketplace.

I hung out this weekend with a friend who I met on the Camino de Santiago, a mystical young Irishman called Ciaran. He told me that if one gets obsessed with the ‘numbers game’ – how many books one has sold, how many people come to your speaking events, how many people join your philosophy club and so on, then you’re basically like a Wall Street banker counting their coins. He suggested a radically different path, of just letting go of all that, trusting in God, basically, rather than desperately striving to get your message out there.

His idea sort of reminds me of the concept in Taoism of Wu Wei – non-doing, or doing without doing. The Taoist sage sees the foolishness of desperately striving to change the cosmos, rather they act in accordance with the natural movement of the cosmos, letting it carry their ideas like the wind spreading the florets of a dandelion, rather than trying to impose their will upon it. That sounds a great idea right now. So does a holiday.

Comments:

  • John Doyle says:

    This is a thought-provoking piece, but there is strong evidence to suggest that you are drawing a false conclusion about Aristotle when you claim that his Ethics leads to a kind of restlessness. It’s true that Aristotle suggests that we can only tell whether or not someone has been happy until after that person has died. Leaving that aside, what part of his Ethics necessitates any kind of desire-chasing? On the contrary, Aristotle’s prohibition against recklessness (as opposed to Courage) and incontinence (as opposed to Moderation) both seem to preclude the pursuit of any desire that is not somehow tempered by Reason. Aristotle’s description of the great-souled man is quite explicit in this regard. The great-souled man tends to speak and walk slowly, never hurried or rushing about from place to place.

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