Happiness, eudaemonia and time

When I was just out of college and preparing to start graduate work at Harvard University — really, what should have been a time of anticipatory bliss — I found myself in a profound depression that followed me all the way to Cambridge. This confused my family, and drew their continuous attention and concern. That just tired me out further, and I recall driving my mother on a crosstown errand and confessing, without self-pity, that I simply did not think happiness was in the cards for me. So what?

I didn’t understand depression, other than it was the thing that had driven my dad to long naps on the couch, and to drinking, divorce and obesity. None of that applied to me, so why should I have suspected it at the time? And unsurprisingly, after a semester at the school I’d always dreamt of attending, of taking classes with professors I admired, I was gone, convinced that it was Harvard that was making me unhappy. At one point, I’d even sought out the help of a psychologist at school, who listened to me for 15 minutes and told me that I needed to grow up.

I recall this now — 40 years on — with a sense of stupefaction. The recent occasion of these recollections came when I suddenly understood something about eudaemonia, a word I wished I’d known back then. This personal insight might be trite to those who understand the world and themselves more than I did, but it provides me with a new affordance to my past and, I trust, my future.

It begins with a story I’ve told many times as a kind of proof about the purity of my ideals and work. In 2003 I’d co-founded a media company with an acquaintance and after about a dozen years of successful operation and growth we were preparing to sell it to a large organization. While the deal was generous, my co-founder — who ran the sales and business side of the organization — expressed concern about his future. When this is sold,” he said, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I took that as emblematic of a bourgeois businessman who lacked imagination, a man who could be content with P&Ls, balance sheets and budget lines. The manic energy of his life would dissipate into a succession of all-inclusive vacations, daily rounds of golf, puttering around the house, and binge-watching the latest Nordic Noir on Netflix.

I know exactly what I’m going to do,” I would then tell my listeners. I have a list of 47 projects that I’ve been waiting to do, and now I’m going to get to them.” These included more academic work, writing projects, reading projects, investigations, philanthropy and volunteering.

But on this recent day, the story flipped on me. I was no longer the hero of the story that I thought I was — in fact, I was the lesson.

Telling the story to an incredibly gifted teacher of mine, the scales suddenly fell from my eyes. I got about halfway through before I understood that my partner had spent a dozen years doing exactly what he loved. It got him up in the morning, crowded his dreams at night; he sacrificed evenings and weekends on many occasions to attend to his business, to grow it, and to make something that was bigger than himself. We don’t need to romanticize this. I’m not sure there was any social benefit to our business, and he clearly loved the income and profit. He loved the company car and business class travel. Whatever I might think of that, for this moment, beside the point. Now I realized that back in 2003, he made a courageous decision to launch the business, to follow his heart, put every last cent into our business plan… and then he spent the next (roughly) 624 weeks doing what he loved. Indeed, it was his life’s work, and this explained why he was at a loss for what to do next.

And I now I saw that I had spent the same 624 weeks — and then some — doing something that I did not love and had never aspired to. If either of us were the mercenary, clearly it was me. I had sacrificed progress and time working on the things I did love, building up a to-do-later list of 47 projects over those many years. If I worked occasional nights and weekends and didn’t take all my vacations — which was true — it wasn’t because I loved the work and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It was because I was willing to sell my present time for a chimerical future.

Is it any wonder that in my final year at the company (my exit came about 2 years after my partner’s) I had once again fallen into a deep, troubled depression that had destroyed my health? Just to get into the office each morning, I relied on Pam” — not a co-worker, car-pooler or driver, but lorazepam for anxiety. I was taking increasing dosages of antidepressants and drinking more and more wine at night. Finally I sought out a counselor for the old talking cure.

So here’s the revelation, the punch line in this overlong story — which may not surprise anyone else, but came as a shock to me despite the fact that I had heard people say this, had read it in books, magazines and newspapers, as well as in my correspondence: All my life I had misunderstood the nature of eudaemonia. I thought it was a state that could be achieved as a result of years of sacrifice and hard work. In other words, I was operating on a premise that sustained happiness would come at some future point by foreswearing it in the present. Attending Harvard will be pleasurable after a collegiate career doing all the things necessary to gain admittance, sacrificing the classes and books you love. Having long days to work on 47 projects will be pleasurable once you have spent nearly 14 miserly, sometimes miserable years securing the financial wherewithal to do so at the expense of not doing it now. Right?

Whatever the chemical sources of my depression, it’s clear to me that in my own particular case, its existential source was a fundamental misunderstanding about time and flourishing. We do not arrive at a flourishing future by living in a self-negating presence. To arrive in a flourishing future now seems to me the result of living one’s present days deliberately and intentionally accumulating small moments of happiness.

The evidence had always been there, if I’d been awake to it. When I was racing bikes across New England or running road races, I would never imagine training for an event believing that the best way to prepare is to save all my energy and do no daily rides or runs. Nor would I have imagined using a strategy for writing and publishing that recommended not setting pen to paper until the day the article or essay is due. And never would I have believed that the best way to prepare for the sustaining and wonderful marriage I enjoy today would come about by avoiding my betrothed until the day of our wedding.

No. Eudaemonia, a flourishing life, is not like winning a happiness sweepstakes. It is a compounding account of sorts, most likely to fulfill and sustain you if you have made a daily practice of seeking and experiencing a little bit of love, happiness and satisfaction in the things you do, with the people you are with. As Annie Dillard reminds us, How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

Last updated on 2024-06-28

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