Confidence derives from the Latin fidere, “to trust.” To be confident is to trust and have faith in the world. To be self-confident is to trust and have faith in oneself, and, in particular, in one’s ability to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, take on new challenges, rise to difficult situations, engage with constructive criticism, and shoulder responsibility if and when things go wrong.
Self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, but they aren’t one and the same thing. In particular, it is possible to be highly self-confident and yet to have profoundly low self-esteem, as is the case, for example, with many performers and celebrities, who are able to play to studios and galleries but then struggle behind the scenes. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare [to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate], and self-esteem is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to our self, to others, and to the world.
People with healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex (when these things are a crutch). On the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and look after their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they have no fear of failure or rejection. Of course, like everybody, they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to people and possibilities, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of others and themselves.
So what’s the secret to self-esteem? As I argue in Heaven and Hell, a book on the psychology of the emotions, many people find it easier to build their self-confidence than their self-esteem, and, conflating one with the other, end up with a long list of talents and achievements. Rather than facing up to the real issues, they hide, often their whole life long, behind their certificates and prizes. But as anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of talents and achievements is no substitute for healthy self-esteem. While these people work on their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the emptiness inside them with externals such as status, income, possessions, and so on. Undermine their standing, criticize their home or car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you undermine and criticize.
Similarly, it is no use trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty, undeserved praise. The children are unlikely to be fooled, but may instead be held back from the sort of endeavour by which real self-esteem can grow. And what sort of endeavour is that? Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given it our best, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourselves growing. This is what growth depends on. Growth depends on living up to our ideals, not our parents’ ambitions for us, or the targets of the company we work for, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourselves.
We all say we want to be happy, but the pursuit of happiness often seems like a wild goose chase.
Maybe the problem is not so much with us, or the world we live in, but with the very concept of happiness.
A much better concept, I think, is that of eudaimonia, which literally means ‘good soul’, ‘good spirit’, or ‘good god’.
Eudaimonia is often translated from Greek simply as ‘happiness’—but that is very misleading. The word ‘happy’, which is related to ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’, derives from the Norse happ for ‘chance’, ‘fortune’, or ‘luck’. From Irish to Greek, most European words for ‘happy’ originally meant something like ‘lucky’—one exception being Welsh, in which it originally meant ‘wise’.
Another word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ in Old English is gesælig, which, over the centuries, morphed into our ‘silly’.
Eudaimonia, in contrast, is anything but silly. It has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with hard work. It is a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept than happiness, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing or living a life that is worthwhile or fulfilling.
Many philosophical schools in antiquity thought of eudaimonia as the highest good, often even the very aim and purpose of philosophy, although various schools such as epicureanism and stoicism may have conceived of it in somewhat different terms.
What can be said is that, unlike happiness, eudaimonia is not an emotion but a state of being—or even, especially for Aristotle, a state of doing. As such, it is more stable and reliable, and cannot so easily be taken away from us. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the deepest kind, it does not come from pleasure, but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now.
Socrates on Eudaimonia
Socrates, it seems, equated eudaimonia with wisdom and virtue. In the Greater Alcibiades, he says that he who is not wise cannot be happy; in the Gorgias, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man; and in the Meno, that everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.
At his trial, in the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defence, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honour as possible, while not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. ‘Wealth’ he says, ‘does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.’
Socrates provided the ultimate proof that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man: When the jurors condemned him to death, they only made him and his ideas immortal—and he made sure not to stop them.
Plato on Eudaimonia
Plato broadly agreed with Socrates. In the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon argues that most people are fundamentally selfish, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the mythical Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave as it suited him:
No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
We behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful; while the unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything.
As part of his lengthy reply to Glaucon, Plato famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Plato argues that justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: If health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Plato, an unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational and ordered control of himself.
Aristotle on Eudaimonia
It is with Plato’s one-time student Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics that the concept of eudaimonia is most closely associated.
For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or should be.
Now, if one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.
What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? This ‘supreme good’, he replies, is eudaimonia, and eudaimonia only.
Fine, but what is eudaimonia? For Aristotle, it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. Thus, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’.
Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants, and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique and god-like capacity to reason. Thus, our supreme good is to lead a life that enables us to use and develop our reason, and that is in accordance with reason.
By living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to flourish, that is, to develop and express our full human potential, regardless of the ebb and flow of our good or bad fortune.
The hardest thing to see, said Friedrich Schiller, is what is in front of your eyes.
Gardening is more and more recognized, and now even prescribed by doctors, for its health benefits, including reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.
How might gardening, and nature more generally (including animals), help with mental health? To various degrees, we live inside the stories we tell ourselves. But gardening drags us out of our tortured heads and back into the natural world, which blunts the ideological and emotional extremes to which detached, abstract thought is prone.
In the Philosophy of Existence (1938), Karl Jaspers described this disinterested process of looking outside oneself—or “phenomenology”, as it is sometimes called—as “a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.”
Just picture the gardener’s pure and simple delight at the first crocuses or tulips, a bird’s nest, a swarm of bees… When we stop noticing small things, we are no longer truly alive.
The word “phenomena” derives from the Ancient Greek meaning “things that appear”, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.
Pioneered by Edmund Husserl (1859-1939) as a philosophical tool, phenomenology involves paying close attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories and preconceptions. Pick out an object, plant, or animal, look at it, and then keep on looking for much longer than you normally would. Vision, said the painter James Ensor, changes as it observes.
As a method, phenomenology enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness. This is not quite the same as mindfulness, and, unlike mindfulness, phenomenology has not yet seeped into popular consciousness.
Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. Phenomenology, in contrast, is more explicitly outward-looking—and, I think, much easier to practice.
Phenomenological activities such as wine tasting, gardening, and bird watching remove us from our stifled selves and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations.
In that much, phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life.
Without further ado, and as promised, here are 7 ideas for being more in the moment:
1. Start small and make it regular. For example, aim to go for a half-hour nature walk each day. Go no matter what, even if you’re busy or it’s raining. Having to go for a daily walk is one of the best things about owning a dog. People enjoy the disconnect of having to walk the dog—because, actually, it’s the dog that’s walking them.
2. Make a change to your routine. Born in Königsberg in 1724, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was renowned for his strict routines. His neighbors could tell the time by his daily walks and even nicknamed him “the Clock of Königsberg”. He died in 1804, having in all his 79 years seldom left the city’s precincts. When we are too set in our routine, we tend to take our surroundings for granted. This actually helped Kant, enabling him to live inside his head and become the abstract philosopher that he became. But for most of us, it can grow into a problem. By making small changes to our routine or surroundings, for example, going for an early morning walk, putting a pitcher of tulips on the kitchen table, we naturally notice things more. It’s a bit like traveling, but on a smaller scale.
3. Simplify your life. When we are anxious or stressed, we tend to focus on our worries at the expense of the world around us. But the more we focus on our worries, the more stressed and anxious we become, setting up a vicious cycle. We can bring down stress and anxiety and break that vicious cycle by cutting out certain things, even if that means doing less or doing only one thing at a time. At the very least, we need to make sure that we are getting adequate sleep and exercise, and that we are making the time, every so often, to do the things that we enjoy.
4. Practice deep breathing. In the shorter term, we can alleviate stress and anxiety (and even physical pain, as anyone who’s been through childbirth knows) by regulating our breathing: Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds. Then purse your lips and gradually let the air out, making sure that you let out as much air as you can. Continue doing this until you are feeling much more relaxed. Try it now, it’ll only take a couple of minutes—and, I promise, you’ll notice the difference.
5. Cultivate idleness. There’s a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. Most animals dislike boredom, but man, says writer Colin Wilson, “is tormented by it”. Boredom can open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings. We are, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “always giving parties to cover the silence”. But idleness, and even boredom, also have important upsides.
Here’s one of my favourite Zen jokes:
A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.
“Ten years,” said the Zen master.
“Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?”
The more we rush, the less we contemplate; and the less we contemplate, the less we understand. Time is a very strange thing, and not at all linear: sometimes, the best way of using it is to “waste” it.
6. Savour. Make an effort to enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing. For example, when it comes to your main meal of the day, don’t just lean at the counter and scoff it down lukewarm. Give it a bit of love and care, even if you’re eating alone. Turn off the TV, set the table, dim the lights, and make a moment to feel grateful. Wine lovers don’t just swallow their wine, they admire its hue, swirl it around in the glass, close their eyes and breathe it in deeply…
7. Focus on the process more than on the purpose, especially when it comes to repetitive, mundane tasks like cooking and gardening. When you paint a picture or write a book, it is there for ever (and isn’t that just amazing?). But when you mow the lawn you have to do it all over again in just a few days’ time. The gardener is like Sisyphus, the mythological king made to repeat for all eternity the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher Albert Camus concludes: “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.
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