Lit Is Aristotelian Road to Happiness

Charles Edward Perugini, "Girl Reading"

Charles Edward Perugini, “Girl Reading”


Knowing of my interest in narrative, my librarian brother Jonathan recently sent me a 2006 scholarly article from The Journal of Happiness Studies arguing that our “narrative identity” is essential to our happiness—or as the article puts it, to our “eudaimonic well-being.” Unfortunately the essay, which is half psychology, half philosophy, doesn’t mention literature. It could have noted that reading great works further broadens that path to happiness.

Eudaimonia is a Greek word meaning “a state of having a good indwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous.” In order to set up the importance of stories, author Jack Bauer and his collaborators turn first to Aristotle’s discussion of living the good life:

[E]udaimonia for Aristotle was not simply a matter of feeling that one was a good and virtuous person; it was also a matter of cultivating high degrees of virtue. Similarly, psychologists have recently portrayed the good life not merely as a matter of feeling that one’s life has meaning (e.g., satisfaction with meaningful relationships or meaningful work) but also as a matter of cultivating higher degrees of richness, complexity, or integration in that meaning.

Later on, contrasting eudaimonic forms of happiness with hedonistic or hedonic forms, Bauer writes,

The tendency of psychologists to exclude ego development (and related concepts like moral reasoning and cognitive complexity) from definitions of well-being reflects the historical tendency of research on well-being to focus on hedonic forms of happiness. We think that a more comprehensive appraisal of a human’s being well — consonant with eudaimonic well-being — should extend beyond just how good one feels about the self in a world of others to incorporate how integratively one thinks about the self and others.

So how does one cultivate “higher degrees of richness, complexity, or integration” or incorporate into one’s life greater integrative understanding about “the self and others”? Bauer says that the key is developing stories about oneself:

People make sense of their lives by creating life stories. People use narratives to try to derive some measure of unity and purpose out of what may otherwise seem to be an incomprehensible array of life events and experiences

As Jonathan Gottshall notes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2013), virtually all humans use stories to make sense of their lives. Bauer, however, says that there are certain kinds of stories that are more likely to lead to happiness. Drawing on Abraham Maslow’s emphasis on self actualization, he says that the growth story is particularly effective in promoting happiness:

Growth stories have implications for eudaimonic well-being as well as a variety of phenomena in personality and developmental psychology. Growth itself plays a central role in eudaimonic wellbeing. For example, personal growth is one of six dimensions in a prominent measure of eudaimonic well-being. Growth is also central to the eudaimonic definition of health in humanistic psychology. For Maslow (1968), the self-actualizing person is motivated by growth, valuing personal growth (or self-actualization) to the point of believing that it is among the very greatest goods. For [Carl] Rogers (1961), the fully functioning person strives to gain an increasingly deeper understanding of his or her inner life. In a developmental model of the good life, high levels of both well-being and meaning complexity represent the endpoints of two theoretical branches of personality development (social-emotional and social-cognitive development, respectively). Given the close tie between growth and eudaimonic well-being, growth stories reveal one process of interpreting life in a way conducive to eudaimonic well-being.

Bauer then breaks growth stories down into four subgenres:

–Intrinsic growth: This is personal growth, which includes relations with friends, relatives, and partners.

–Agentic and communal growth: This is the growth comes from a deeper relationship with the broader community. Later in the article Bauer mentions “generativity,” which involves “an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations” and which would seem to fit under this category.

–Integrative growth: This growth emphasizes “learning, exploring, coming to deeper understandings, and integrating new and old perspectives on one’s life.”

–The growth that can arise out of suffering

To these growth stories, Bauer adds a cultural dimension. There are a number of growth stories that are particularly American:

In contemporary American society, narratives about heroic protagonists who defy convention in order to follow their true (intrinsic) longings, or who suffer through life’s harshest tribulations only to emerge enhanced or integrated in the end, enjoy considerable cachet and admiration. While American society is repeatedly taken to task for its crass materialism and its preoccupations with wealth and celebrity, Americans deeply value stories of personal redemption. Sometimes these stories suggest religious meanings, but more often they adopt images and ideas from secular life. In popular fiction, Hollywood movies, television shows from reality TV to the Oprah Winfrey Show, and in many other venues, American protagonists continue to distinguish themselves as rugged and resilient individualists who delight in their nonconformity and who continue to grow and develop, especially in response to failure and setbacks. Indeed, these kinds of redemptive narratives have always held a privileged status in American society, going back to the spiritual autobiographies written by the New England Puritans in the 17th century. (Among the most popular forms for redemptive life narratives in American society today are stories of upward social mobility, liberation, recovery, atonement, and self-actualization. In each of these forms, the intrinsically motivated protagonist overcomes intense suffering to experience an enhanced status or state — moving from rags to riches, slavery to freedom, sickness (or addiction) to health, sin to salvation, or immaturity to the full expression of the good inner self. In some of these stories, the protagonist may feel that there is something wrong or bad about the self and, as a result, may work hard to try to redeem life in some way. In many others, however, what is wrong is the suffering that comes to people through no fault of their own — through sickness, for example, loss, pov- erty, and so on. Redemptive narratives typically chart the protagonist’s movement over time from suffering to an enhanced status or state. Redemptive life narratives in contemporary American society seem to suggest that if the road is not hard, the life cannot be good…

I must say that the mentions of Oprah and, even more, reality television was enough to have me questioning the entire article. Surely facile redemption stories, which pervade our culture, are not the key to true happiness. In fact, as I have argued in past posts, we are drawn to the powerful gothic strain in American literature (Poe, Hawthorne, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates) because we are dissatisfied with feel-good, morning-in-America success stories. America’s fabled optimism sometimes is a cover for deep insecurities.

So this is what I would add to Bauer’s article. Yes, stories may be the key to finding happiness, but we need great literature if we are to find stories that will truly sustain us. Perhaps Bauer would agree—he cites Maslow and Rogers calling for a rich complexity—but he needs to say so.

Ready literary examples come to mind for each of his categories:

–Intrinsic growth: The bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel focuses on the develop of the individual protagonist. The 19th century specialized in the growth stories of individual characters, and one thinks particularly of such Dickens figures as Pip and David Copperfield.

–Agentic and communal growth: I have to bring up my favorite novel here, The Brothers Karamazov, where Alyosha, the youngest brother, is constantly seeking for a greater cause to which he can dedicate himself.

–Integrative growth: I think of Jane Austen’s Emma as a character who comes to a deeper understanding of herself and the world.

–Growth through suffering: Any number of the world’s great tragedies could be cited here, but I’ll just mention King Lear, who can discover love only when his world is falling apart around him.

One other thought: as we watch crowds cheer for Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim demagoguery, we can identify another quintessentially American narrative at work, one described by Richard Slotkin in his trilogy of works about frontier narratives and westerns. Slotkin notes that America has often believed that redemption can be achieved through the violent suppression of other races.

It is a less benign narrative than the classic growth story, and Aristotle would not see it leading to a sense of eudaimonic wellbeing. But as we can see Trump adulation, it can provide a euphoric high.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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