Eudaimonia and the Art of Misdirection

My shoulders and neck hurt. They have hurt for many years. This is the product of a quarter century of interpreting into ASL, a lifetime of bad posture choices, and a pandemic that put all of my interactions on a small screen…or so I thought. After struggling to correct the problem myself through yoga, stretching, screen breaks, and an expensive pillow, I had found little lasting relief. The doctor told me I have arthritis, or “Old Interpreter Shoulders,” and sent me to physical therapy. I was diligent about my exercises, but was beginning to despair that I would always be in pain. 

In an effort to improve my yoga postures, I decided to go to a yoga therapist. As I sat there feeling the ever-present pain in my upper shoulders, and a growing headache, we talked about a past medical crisis and my daughter’s health problems right after I brought her home from China. We talked about my breathing and my love of long walks and hikes. We talked about infertility and flexibility and then she said, “Lay down on this yoga mat.” She gave me instructions about pressing on various places on my abdomen and breathing into my pelvic floor. It took 15 minutes to complete the process. When I stood up, I was pain free. Pain. Free.

The problem, it turns out, wasn’t my neck and shoulders. (Not the root problem anyway.) The problem is that I guard my breathing and hold tension in my right hip. My psoas and my diaphragm were tight and recruited my shoulders to draw focus away from the source of pain. It has been over a week since this appointment and I am still without pain. My shoulder PT has seen more progress in one week than in the six previous weeks put together. I’m sleeping better. I still can’t believe it! It was like magic. Only it wasn’t; I was just lost in misdirection.

Misdirection happens in our lives when we expend time and energy to solve a problem at its surface.  All too often, “self-care” is targeted to meet our immediate needs instead of providing for long-term joy and well-being. Hedonic happiness comes from fulfilling a desire for instant pleasure or escape. How often do we return from our “self-care” outings only to find that we are right back where we started? We have found escape, but neglected the source of the suffering.

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is deep/lasting happiness. This is the kind of happiness, or joy, or well-being that carries us through difficult situations or painful seasons. The science of happiness has shown that eudaimonia depends on four components: connection, purpose, positive outlook, and loving kindness. It requires vulnerability and bravery because it is only available when we can honestly state our needs and take action to fulfill them.

Thupten Jinpa says, “We cannot will ourselves to be happy, but we can create the conditions for happiness.” Those conditions include reaching out to others, aligning our actions with our values, finding gratitude as a source of hope, and working to ease the suffering of others. “Self-care” is often indulgent and self-focused, but lasting happiness actually comes from compassionate care of ourselves and others. Believe me, it is so much easier to get a pedicure than admit I need help from my partner. The pedicure (while colorful and indulgent) fades and cracks, but opening myself up to the vulnerability of my true needs deepens my connection to my partner and myself. Lasting happiness.

The great contradiction of compassion fatigue is that, in order to heal from compassion fatigue, we must open ourselves up to more compassion. We often respond to this idea by believing that we must turn inward and focus on ourselves in order to rediscover our energy. There is some truth in this, because we do need to open ourselves up to self-compassion, which is different from the common understanding of self-care.

Performing an act of kindness has been shown to release dopamine and serotonin (the feel good hormones) in the brain. Unlike the hit of dopamine that we get after a good meal or a trip down the social media rabbit hole, acts of kindness have a longer lasting impact on both the giver and the receiver. In fact, some studies show that intentional expressions of gratitude can give both the “thanker” and the “thanked” a boost in their happiness for as long as three months. I wish my pedicures lasted that long!

Don’t misunderstand me. Loving kindness can be directed at oneself as well. Self-care, pleasure, joyful indulgence and “escape” all play important roles in finding a life of compassionate care of self and others. The value, however, is when they meet a need and come from a place of connection, purpose, and loving kindness. I work with one woman whose husband is often encouraging her to “get away” from the kids. He wants her to treat herself to some form of fun “self-care.” She realized that the wisest way she could care for herself in this “indulgent hour away” was to spend it organizing her week. It isn’t glamorous, but it offered her an opportunity to meet her own need for ease and flow. The “high” from that hour lasted her all week long. She was able to experience herself and her family with deeper joy because she had spent this time connecting to her purpose. 

Similarly, I take frequent “adventure trips” as a form of self-compassion. In order to do this, I first had to be vulnerable with myself, my partner, and my friends. “I need to remember who I am when I’m not a mom or wife. I need reassurance of my own strength.” These people who love me helped me make space to jump off of high places, and eat fire, and splash around in waterfalls. Both the weekly planning session and my adventure trips are acts of self-compassion. They come from the understanding that there is a deep need crying out for attention. We are both better for listening.

Life is full of painful, frustrating misdirection, but we can create the conditions for our own happiness. What would it mean to really connect with those around you? What would open up if your actions aligned with your values? How can gratitude offer you hope? What can you do for someone else that might remind you of your own beautiful heart? Where is eudaimonia calling you?

Finding lasting happiness may seem like a magic trick. But eudaimonia isn’t an illusion. It is within reach, if you only know where to look.

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