Eudaimonia: Making Work Enjoyable for Everyone Through Purpose

Author: Markus Peschl, Oliver Lukitsch
Photo: Arthur Yao

When people talk about joy, they often have in mind a rather superficial form of happiness. But we are not going to talk about mere happiness or fun at work. For us, joy is not so much about having a pleasurable moment or a happy experience. We think of joy similarly to how Aristotle saw it: joy is caused by things or situations that make our lives better on a deeper level. He called it “eudaimonia” – a life of virtuous activity leading to the fulfillment of our capacities and potentials.1

Eudaimonia: The Final Purpose of Life

It seems to be undisputed that every human being strives for living a good life. Living a life full of happiness turns out to be our final goal. So, what makes a good life the ultimate purpose of human existence? Our old friend Aristotle developed a few criteria for judging if something is worth being the ultimate goal of our life.

  1. First, he emphasizes that the final goal has to be pursued for its own sake. It means that we enjoy it for what it is, and we are not using it to achieve something else. Wealth, for example, is usually not enjoyed for itself, but as a means to purchase luxury items or gain admiration from others.
  2. The final goal has to be complete in the sense that it’s enough to make life worth living. It means that achieving this goal will be enough to account for what we could call “living a good life”.
  3. The final goal also has to be self-sufficient in the following way: it is something that we can achieve or practice on our own, it is not dependent on factors outside of our control. In other words: the final goal probably lies inside of us, since, even in situations when we have lost control over “outside conditions”, we can maintain control over our mind and attitude.

Aristotle shows that eudaimonia satisfies these criteria. It can be translated as happiness, as living a flourishing life, living well, or as having a good life. Eudaimonia is an activity leading to profound happiness because this kind of life is lived in line with our virtues and through realizing our purpose and potential.

 “A passive but contented couch potato may be getting what he wants, and he may enjoy it. But he would not, on Aristotelian and other objective list theories, count as doing well, or leading a happy life.”

daniel m. haybron

In other words: eudaimonia means living in positive resonance with ourselves, our surroundings, and our potentials. And it will not happen on its own. You might be a talented artist, for example, but to live accordingly means to hone and refine your artistic skills, to learn and grow. It also can’t be achieved in hours or days but will take a whole lifetime, and for a good reason, because it’s the ultimate value providing us with direction and orientation in life.

Based on this, we can see that this kind of joy is closely related to the experience of agency and autonomy. Agency and autonomy mean being able to engage with our environment purposefully and proactively, instead of only reacting to what comes our way. We need to experience ourselves as the authors of change in our lives and see our impact on others.

The Joy of Control

There’s also a simpler version of enjoying life. We encounter it when a child first learns to walk or manages to go to the bathroom on its own. Our everyday lives are full of little success stories to which we can pay attention and which we can enjoy. Some traditions, such as Buddhism, value-conscious attention to everyday things highly, claiming there is a more profound, existential happiness to be revealed if we do things mindfully.

In the world of work, imagine a skilled craftsman who performs a task to perfection while being deeply immersed, engaged, and exhaustively focused. It’s an idea we cherish but seldom live up to. In our fast-paced world, staying focused is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible. In our work, rather than finding ourselves in a state of flow3, we find ourselves in a state of dispersion most of the time, since we must answer to the complexities of our digitized work lives and the head-on engagement of uncertainty.

Aristotle by Luca Giordano

At first glance, this may mean that repetitive, mechanical work would be best geared to avoid our modern-day dispersion and digital distractions by allowing us to fully engage in predictable exercises. At least at first glance, neuroscience also seems to confirm this.

When acting in situations that are well known and familiar to us, we can experience flow because we can predict the course of our actions.4 Furthermore, we experience ourselves in control only when we can predict the effects of our actions.5

But most importantly, we might only experience what we do as our own actions because we can predict their impact.6 The more skilled we get in a certain activity, the better we can predict what will happen. As a result, we experience an increasing sense of control over what we are doing. The simpler the activity, the easier it is to become an expert in it.

So do we enjoy being successful creatures of habit? And do we perhaps even need this to have an experience of self-agency? Is simple, mechanical work the best way to reconnect with ourselves and enter an immersive flow as we work?

The Joy of Taking Ownership

As you might have guessed, it’s not that simple. While being an expert helps us to enter a state of flow, highly automatic activities, like repetitive work, can also make us feel detached and alienated – we’re running on autopilot. We might even develop a sense of being passive observers of the situation. In extreme cases, we can even feel like we no longer control our bodies ourselves.7

To avoid these unpleasant feelings, we need to act on a background of uncertainty.8 After all, we only need to pay attention to our actions when we can’t rely on our brain’s automation. So actually, the kind of joy we are looking for emerges when we have to pay close attention to what we’re doing, precisely because our task is somehow new or unpredictable.9 The experience of self-agency (and as a consequence, joy) is much more than the experience of being in control. It’s the experience of mastering uncertainty.

Remember the child learning to walk? It doesn’t feel joyful because it can walk. Rather, the child’s joy comes from the process of learning how to walk. The child experiences self-appropriation and has a sense of ownership of its body and movements. Precisely this experience of ”I am in charge” anchors us in the moment. It is a basic foundation for experiencing joy and thus joyful work in the later stages of our lives.

The Joy of Loving Others

By now, you know that deep joy requires that we first accept uncertainty and that we can grow by overcoming it. There is also another situation in which we need to accept our limits of control and self-determination: loving another person.

To love another person involves “letting be”, the most fundamental form of human knowledge.10 To love is to know another person in a way that allows them to be themselves. In our usual way of thinking, we often impose our own understanding of others on them. But to love another person is to let them be as they are, to love them for who they are. Most importantly, some would say that loving others in this way is the most fundamental source of joy.

The ability to “let be” is not only conducive to romantic relationships. We think that managers and their employees can benefit significantly from learning to let others be who they are and training themselves to enjoy and support the characteristics of others.

The Joy of Working

While manual work was not very valued in ancient Greece, this has changed dramatically in modern times. Producing, making, and fabricating have become key characteristics of homo Faber and enjoy the highest social recognition.11

Productivity, efficiency, and optimization are the ideals and goals of working. However, it’s no longer the purpose or usefulness of the product that counts, but it’s productivity for the sake of productivity, and as a consequence, personal well-being experienced from producing and consuming. Another consequence of modern work: the division of labor – splitting and assigning different parts of a production process or task to different people to improve efficiency – has led us to often lose a sense of purpose at work.

“We mistake leisure for idleness and work for creativity.”

Josef Pieper

In complex work environments, workers can no longer see and understand their particular contribution to the overall purpose of the organization they work for. This alienation from purpose12 has increased even more in modern working environments that are driven by automation, hyper standardized and uniform work processes, excessive division of labor (as in globally distributed value chains and production networks), as well as in work environments where cognitive technologies are restricting original human thinking to a minimum.

Far away from the concept of eudaimonia, work, productivity, and efficiency have become ends in themselves. Contemplation is considered unnecessary, or even an obstacle to productivity.  Our most valuable human activities, such as original thinking, participatory sense-making, reflection, and social relations are outsourced to cognitive machines. In some instances, they are even regarded as undesirable.13

Work, Eudaimonia, and Recreation

In contrast to a society driven by efficiency, productivity, and speed, we propose an alternative approach to work and how to relate it to joy. We introduce the concept of re:creation. In its everyday meaning, recreation means an activity done for our enjoyment, usually when we don’t have to work. We suggest digging deeper, however, as there is much more to it than the rather superficial aspects of wellness, pleasure, play, and entertainment.

We can find some hints about its deeper meaning in its Latin roots. Recreation is derived from the Latin word “recreare”; “re-” is a prefix and means “again”; “creare” can be translated to create, bring into being, or give birth to. Etymologically speaking, recreare has various connotations, such as to restore, recover (from illness), refresh one’s strength and spirits after work, to make new, or to revive.

Path Through The Forest by Gustave Courbet

There is a clear relationship between recreation and joy, leisure, and play. However, we don’t want to limit our understanding of recreation to relaxing, or just amusement. In the context of eudaimonia, creativity, and innovation, we want to focus on the aspects of renewal and bringing something to life, of bringing forth novelty, and of making something new as an activity that is not necessarily driven by functionality and efficiency. Inherent in this understanding of re:creation is the concept of leisure.

“We should be able, not only to work well but to use leisure well; for, as I must repeat once again, the first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?“ -Aristotle, Politics 8

The Importance of Leisure for Leading a Good Life

Aristotle makes an astonishing remark that might sound a bit counterintuitive for our time. He claims that we are working for the sake of leisure and that leisure is the final cause of work. In a way, he has reversed today’s order, which is driven by the imperative of working for the sake of working.

Today, leisure is often reduced to a means for increasing our productivity at work (like nap rooms in the office, or cozy coffee lounges that invite you to have “informal” meetings).

However, Aristotle warns us that leisure should not be confused with amusement or „doing nothing“. He says that leisure is related to a more contemplative activity, to eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a „purposeless activity“, undertaken for the sake of itself and leading to a state of internal rest, “contemplation”, or resonance with ourselves.

Leisure understood in such a sense doesn’t aim for a product, an outcome, or some other accomplishment. If something interesting or purposeful arises out of these activities, this product or outcome should be considered a by-product.

If we want to create a future where everyone can engage in joyful work we need to embrace Eudaimonia and look at how to apply it in our organizations.

In this sense, work can’t be undertaken by following purely functional and mechanistic routines. Deep insights and new knowledge have to be seen as by-products that have emerged from a state of leisure or re:creation. They are not the result of what we would call productive work. Leisure and contemplation need to become a prerequisite for purposeful work, which aims at bringing about a more meaningful world.

“Happiness eludes us exactly and precisely to the extent that we forcefully intend it. But it arises automatically when we live out our self-transcendence, be it in work, be it in love. Happiness is an outcome that cannot be forced.”

Viktor Frankl

This perspective is not only supported by philosophy, but also by recent findings in neuroscience and cognitive science. Just to name a few, there is evidence that creativity has its roots in the brain’s resting states as well as meditative activities14, or that creativity emerges from a subtle oscillation between divergent and convergent thinking, between conscious and unconscious brain processes and relaxed brain states.15

Studies also show that the level of creative problem solving is increased in natural and silent environments, as explained in the so-called Attention Restoration theory and through activation of the default mode brain network, active during rest.16 It seems that looking towards the future of our global society, traumatized by the pandemic and loss of purpose, striving for a joyful and meaningful life for everyone is the way forward.

To learn more about how to apply eudaimonia in your organization and help people deeply enjoy their work, you can now download our publication The Enjoyable Company for free.

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[13] Vidovic, P. and M.F. Peschl (2020). The design and enaction of digitalised environments. Ramifications of digital transformation for creativity, innovation, and humanism. In J. Fritz and N. Tomaschek (Eds.), Digitaler Humanismus. Menschliche Werte in der virtuellen Welt, pp. 41–57. Münster: Waxmann.

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[16] Atchley, R.N., D.L. Strayer, and P. Atchley (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE 7(12), e51474