Miscellaneous

Cognitive Psychology: Eudemonia and Arete

Aristotle’s eudemonia and arete provide a description of elements that make a person satisfied with what he has. However, from the lens of Cognitive Psychology, eudemonia and self-actualization can be achieved by only one and foremost arete (virtue) which is correct thinking.



In line with ethical hedonism, Aristotle professed that the ultimate purpose of human existence is to strive for eudemonia (satisfaction, happiness, and spirited being). He talked about ‘eudemonia and arête which can be translated as achieving a satiated self through virtues such as wisdom, moderation and kindness. However, from the lens of Cognitive Psychology, the state of eudemonia and self-actualization can be achieved by only one and foremost arête (virtue), i.e., optimal thinking which is not positive thinking but correct thinking. You can’t possibly be positive about everything that happens to you, but you can surely be correct; neither magnifying the given adversity in your head nor being overoptimistic about a given situation. One of the famous phrases ascribed with Aristotle is “being qua being” (being as being or being akin to being) which in my interpretation is the best possible existence as a being through optimal mind/thinking. Apart from the base reality of this phrase, true being in its true sense is the spiritual reality (cognitive domain) in which one can experience something exceptional, magical and divine. The achievement of this hedonic state of satisfaction is only possible through correct thinking, since our thinking and perception ultimately define the reality for us.
Cognitive Psychology has been mired in an unending quest for understanding the streaks of human behavior, a behavior which is the manifestation and outcome of human thinking and cognition. Our reactions, responses and more precisely our behavior, reveals itself through the interaction of reality with our perception and knowledge. This journey of Cognitive Psychology is an undercurrent of mental philosophy, ontology and epistemology cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist) is an ontological commitment of French philosopher, René Descartes, as a proof of his existence and being. But my interpretation of this adage would be cognitive in nature, i.e., “I think… is the way I am”, putting it in simple words “I think therefore I exist and the way I exist or the way I choose to exist is governed by my thinking”. Thinking will either make someone a satisfied person over what he has in his hands or fretting about what he has missed out, therefore, thinking is a choice. This subjective choice will determine how we behave and react to the realities and adversities of the objective world or to be precise about how we will spend our lives – merely exist or live joyfully. Here is a conclusion: Thinking is a choice, a choice that will determine the course of our existence. 


The degree of undesirable behaviors like anxiety, remorse, pessimism or depression are not due to the reality stimuli (some adversity), but due to our flawed perception of magnifying the reality out of proportion, thinking of dire consequences (worst-case scenarios) and believing it accordingly, and our inability to correlate the problem with the vast database of our knowledge. When we fail to pursue our thinking to mediate between our perception and knowledge, we magnify the given problem and resultantly become slaves to our flawed thinking. And when we do mediate well, thinking becomes our slave. 


A situation or an adversity is interpreted by different people in different ways and subsequently triggers different reactions. The difference between the response/reaction of two individuals to the same reality (adversity) is due to their different thinking processes. So how we react, ‘good, bad or ugly’, ‘optimum, optimistic or pessimistic’ is actually due to the interpretation of reality (adversity, which is the same in magnitude for everyone in tangible objective terms) with our perceptions (which vary from individual to individual as to how one perceives the given adversity in subjective terms, i.e., grave or normal) and our knowledge (a vast data warehouse of contemporary situations stored in our long-term memory which is pivotal in rational thinking for the way forward). In between the perception and knowledge lies the magnificent subjective faculty called thinking – a good slave but a bad master. The degree of undesirable behaviors like anxiety, remorse, pessimism or depression are not due to the reality stimuli (some adversity), but due to our flawed perception of magnifying the reality out of proportion, thinking of dire consequences (worst-case scenarios) and believing it accordingly, and our inability to correlate the problem with the vast database of our knowledge. When we fail to pursue our thinking to mediate between our perception and knowledge, we magnify the given problem and resultantly become slaves to our flawed thinking. And when we do mediate well, thinking becomes our slave. Here is another conclusion: Situations are as good or grave as we think of them because reality or a given situation is nothing but a product of our perception and thinking. In other words, thinking can be a good slave or a bad master. It goes without saying that a person who sees less and imagines more is destined for anxiety and if we don’t want to be that person, then the trick lies in enslaving one’s thinking.
Around 4000 BC, septuagenarian Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by refusing to accept the gods of the state and propagating his anti-democratic views. He was given three hours to defend himself in front of a jury comprising 500 Athenians. After being voted guilty by 280 members of the jury, he was sentenced to death. Choosing not to flee, he spent his last days in the company of his friends before drinking the executioner’s bowl of poisonous hemlock. The kind jailer while handing over the bowl filled with poison to Socrates said the golden words, “Try to bear lightly what needs to be”. And Socrates did. He faced death with calmness, acceptance and resignation that touched the hem of divinity. This incident has been narrated by his disciples including Plato. The logical interpretation of the jailer’s phrase is that when the circumstances are inevitable, bear them lightly and accept the inevitable with the arms wide open. There are times when we are mired in certain adversities that we think our actions can’t abate the worseness of the given situation. In such scenarios, just remember the words of the kind jailer which professes that we should accept the inevitability and should try to make the best of the dire circumstance, because there is always room for the worst. Socrates made the best of the inevitable looming death by spending his last days with friends; after all that was the best he could possibly make of the inevitable situation.
During World War II, there was a Japanese boy who got the job of sea patrolling. Incontrovertibly staying for days and days in the sea was a tough ask for a young farm boy. He saw many of his counterparts leaving the job because they could not come to terms with the job description. Being a poor lad, he knew this job was an inevitable must for him. So one day he decided to bear it lightly and make the best of his worst routine. He bought a camera, a shotgun and a fishing rod, and converted his sea sickening voyages into adventure trips. He started taking photos of the beautiful sunsets, diving dolphins and pelicans flying over the creeks. With his newly bought shotgun, he started hunting in the sea and developed the skill of shooting partridges from the running boat. With his fishing rod, he managed to catch various types of fishes. He explored various Virgin Islands and met various tribes living in those islands, unveiling their cultures and folkways. He made the best of his worst by converting his sea sickening voyages into photography, hunting, fishing and exploration trips. This brings us to another conclusion that when an adversity is inevitable and the situation is bad, there is always room for the worst and at the same time there is also room to get the best out of the worst. Look for that best. 


In a nutshell, irrational beliefs cause problems in our normal functioning. With rational analysis and cognitive reconstruction, people can understand their self-defeating behaviors and develop more rational constructs. 


Optimal thinking leads to the selection of correct values and matrixes. Value can be defined as a goal we set for ourselves, like being successful, famous or even being a superman. The matrix is the yardstick with which we measure our value, the extent to which believe we have achieved our value. In other words, matrix defines whether we have been successful in achieving our values or not. Mark Manson explains this concept with an example described as Rock Star Problems. There was a young guitarist named Dave Mustaine who was part of a rock band. A day before signing for the record company, the other band members threw Mustaine out of the band. Being dejected, he decided that he would start his own band and would leave no stone unturned to make it the most successful rock band of USA, so that his ex-band members regret throwing him out. Mustaine worked hard and started the band called Megadeth which sold over 25 million albums. Even after earning fame and money, Mustaine was not happy. Do you know why? Because the band which had thrown Mustaine out later came to be known as Metallica which sold over 180 million albums worldwide. Since Mustaine had selected a wrong value, i.e., to be more successful than the band which had thrown him out, he remained unhappy despite so much fame and money. His value was based on comparison which made him miserable despite his success. On the other hand, Pete Best of Beatles was also kicked out from the band. Pete, after leaving the band, led a simple life; he got married, got a job and used to play at private gatherings occasionally. Pete neither had as much fortune as his ex-band members of Beatles nor had the same fame, but he was a happy man, and way more satisfied than Mustaine, because he measured success with a different scale, i.e., a loving spouse and a caring family.   
Last but not the least, the foremost fortune of correct thinking is gratitude. To focus on what one has rather than the dozen that lay in a bush. To be able to thank Allah for his blessings is a blessing itself. This blessing of gratitude saves us from the agony of comparison and empowers us to enjoy the boon of peace. Gratitude enables us to choose the right value (Qanaat, contentment) and the right matrix (Shumar-e-rehmat, counting the blessings). It is mentioned in Quran, “If you count the blessings of Allah, never will you be able to count them” (Quran: 14.34). It is just how we see the glass, half empty or half full. Gratitude can be understood by the definition of faqir which according to Ibn Manzur in Lisan al-Arab, is a person in the worst possible situation – a person whose back is broken and when your back is broken, you can’t lift anything. Things have to be given and provided to you because you can’t even go and get them. That is why Hazrat Musa said, “Ya Allah, whatever you sent towards me is because I am faqir, I can’t go and get myself. You are bringing it to me”. This is the acknowledgment of Musa which is all about gratitude, a basic tenet of eudemonia – contented self. We humans, the bipedal primates despite our prehensile hands are faqirs with broken backs. We can’t go and get whatever is being given to us ourselves, rather whatever is being provided to us are the blessings of Allah, therefore, we have no reason to be unthankful for what we have and fretting about opportunity costs. Life is like a checkerboard in which everyone is compensated in one way or the other, but we just focus on what others have and we don’t, forgetting to see what we have and others don’t. Albert Ellis, an American psychologist and psychotherapist, who founded Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) gave the concept of demandingness, the musts and shoulds we impose on ourselves. As per Albert Ellis, demandingness is the major source of distress and as per mystic psychologists, the remedy lies in gratitude. Here is another conclusion: Yedasentience (the subjective feeling of having enough) comes with gratitude, and gratitude comes with religious introspection of what one has, rather than what one is missing; cherishing the haves and thanking the Creator for these provisions to a being which by design is a faqir with a broken back.
Negative triads (negative views of self, others and future), ruminations (repeatedly recalling sad experiences), and negative irrational cognitions (seeing the negative aspect of everything) all are the dividends of maladaptive thinking which leads to the abovementioned maladaptive behavior. This calls for cognitive trephining to get rid of the demons of flawed thinking. Aaron Beck whose theories led to cognitive paradigm gave the concept of selective abstraction, also called filtering. It is a cognitive distortion, which occurs when negative aspects are considered more relevant than the positive ones. Despite the fact that a situation has both good and bad aspects, we prefer to see the bad ones and that too with a magnifying glass. As per Aaron Beck, the remedy lies in selective perception which is a perceptual process in which a person only perceives what he desires to and sets aside or ignores other perceptions or viewpoints.
In a nutshell, irrational beliefs cause problems in our normal functioning. With rational analysis and cognitive reconstruction, people can understand their self-defeating behaviors and develop more rational constructs. God has created us in the most wonderful way that we can use our brain to think and thank and if we think properly, i.e., correct thinking, we can lead a satiated life which has been described by Aristotle as eudemonia.


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