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Reframe Podcast: Episode 22

Eudaimonia

Group Picture People touching their knees
In this episode, we explore the possibilities and merits of a philosophical concept called Eudaimonia. And how it could hold the key to greater health and wellbeing for almost everyone.
Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami university.

In this episode, we explore the possibilities and merits of a philosophical concept called Eudaimonia. And how it could hold the key to greater health and wellbeing for almost everyone.

(Music Fade)

James Loy:

The idea seems simple enough. Almost obvious, really. And yet, it might help ignite what’s been called the third revolution of health and wellness. Or even, says EHS associate professor of kinesiology Jay Kimiecik, it might even be more like the fourth.   

But this idea, which centers on something called Eudaimonia, is entirely new.

Jay Kimiecik:

It’s kind of based on Aristotle’s idea of humans. So it goes back a long way. And this is not new per say, but applying it to health is where the cutting edge is going.

James Loy:

For those who have already experienced its positive side effects, Eudaimonia is not a hard sell. But for many, it could represent a kind of paradigm shift or sea change, and even necessitate a resistance to a number of deeply embedded cultural norms.

It’s pretty well established that to be healthy, people should stay active, not smoke, eat nutritious foods, get quality sleep, have fulfilling relationships, and so on. 

And it’s true. Again and again, data shows that these behaviors can prevent disease, reduce health risks, and improve wellbeing. But the problem is that most health and wellness plans -- those that require some kind of lifestyle change like a workout regimen or diet, for example -- do not work very well for most people, especially over the long-term. 

Academic literature shows that most programs only produce a short-term success, or a bump up, followed by a regression back to baseline when the intervention ends.

Jay Kimiecik:

And this is true for physical activity, eating, it is a general trend.

James Loy:

And the trend applies to people of all ages too, and it’s not only confined to the arcane findings of academic research either. Anyone who has either tried to diet, or known someone who has, can likely relate to this yo-yo effect on some level.

But why? What’s missing?

Jay Kimiecik:

The majority of work in exercise psychology has been on . . .  and it’s good work. If you exercise regularly, you will feel better about yourself. You will have enhanced self-esteem. You will have enhanced feelings of confidence. You will have heightened emotionality. Right. So if you do that behavior, you will get these things. Okay. So why aren’t people doing that?

James Loy:

The reason, according to Kimiecik, is that most weight loss plans and workout regimens and most health advice in general comes from expert-driven biomedical models that prioritize prescriptive-based interventions that focus almost exclusively on the behaviors that people should either stop or start doing. 

Jay Kimiecik:

It starts with information and rationalization. But the whole paradigm of health or health behavior change is misguided. And, again, I am not demeaning the work by some very, very good researchers discovering lots of things. But it is in the implementation that we fall short. 

James Loy:

So just focusing on the behaviors alone is not enough. In fact, this approach may be missing the most import part of the whole story. 

Jay Kimiecik:

Well, what’s missing is the person. What is missing is the whole totality of the holistic beings that we are. The psychological. The physical. The social. All of that integrates into one to make you a human being. 

James Loy:

Which brings us back to Eudaimonia, and the premise is simple. Eudaimonia suggests that when people find and follow their true selves or purpose for being, they tend to naturally live more fulfilling, meaningful, and healthier, happier lives.

Kimiecik calls this finding the “inner imperative” that unlocks the “innate potentialities” that lie within us all, and it’s this authentic self-expression that leads directly to optimal human functioning. 

In less academic speak, it basically means follow your heart. 

We already tend to hear this idea a lot in various forms. It’s at the center of the hero’s journey in many books and movies. People express it repeatedly when trying to find the right career. And in addition to having direct ties back to Aristotle, it also relates to Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs and to psychological notions of self-actualization.

So the idea is not new, but applying it to health and fitness is. The idea is that when people start living the lives they truly wish to live, when they find their reason for being, when they express themselves in ways that just feel right, or that align with their own “inner imperative,” they tend to flourish in many ways. 

And Kimiecik’s research shows that it actually works.

In one study, Kimiecik designed an 8-week program called the Well-being Way, which encouraged a group of Miami University employees to connect with a variety of eudaimonic concepts including personal growth, subjective vitality, self-determination, and life engagement. 

They participated in activities and discussions and group sessions, which were all designed to help each participant identify and tap into their own individual notions of what a well-lived and rewarding life meant to them.

After the program, the participants showed significant increases in both psychological well-being and physical activity levels. Furthermore, those who reported experiencing the greatest increases in life engagement also experienced the biggest boosts in physical activity. 

Jay Kimiecik:

But it wasn’t a program designed to help them become more physically active. And the data shows that why were they able to do this? Because, in some simple way, they began to feel better about who they were. Maybe they discovered and uncovered some things about being well that led to a bump up in vitality.

James Loy:

He also found similar results after introducing the Well-being Way to a group of ninth graders during a local high school enrichment program.

Jay Kimiecik:

When we did that we did not come in and say, “Hey, we are here to make you more active or change your eating patterns.” No. We said, “We are here for you. We feel that this is an important time for you to get the chance to discover yourselves with your peers and so forth.” 

And we did pre and post and afterwards we found afterwards that the kids who had more of this autonomy, that was created through the experience, they were the ones who became more physically active and who ate more greens and did not drink as much soda. These kinds of things. 

James Loy:

Kimiecik has also written several books to help people explore the subject from different angles. 

His book The Intrinsic Exerciser explains how the joy and flow that can be found in exercise is much more important than focusing on the health benefits alone. Runner as Hero is an autoethnographic account that uses Kimiecik’s own journey to become a master’s runner as a case study. 

More recently, his newest book, Losing Weight in Six Days, is a novel that tells the story of Annie, who finally discovers a way to change her life after 20 years of unsuccessful weight loss attempts.

Each book, he says, is an attempt to try to create stories that might get people interested. Because after they develop these deeper internal connections, they often experience boosts in vitality that helps them cope with stress and get better sleep. They tend to start socializing more. They become more physically active and even start eating better.

All of these healthier behaviors become a naturally occurring by-product of Eudaimonia. 

But many barriers still exist.

For Eudaimonia to be effective, people must take a much more active role in the process and in their own lives, to figure out who they really are, what they really want, and how they really want to live. 

But this act of looking deep within, this highly individualized pursuit of purpose and meaning, is not necessarily prioritized in our society today.

Yes, the idea of following your heart sounds nice and we do hear it a lot. But it is usually expressed as nothing more than a cliché. The truth is that the vast majority of our contemporary cultural and social institutions are set up in a way that stops most people from conducting this type of ongoing self-exploration.

Far more often, institutions like school systems and places of employment, for example, are riddled with standardizations and constrictions, and with rules and regulations, that stifle self-exploration and self-expression. Even most aspects of life are driven by the goals of a powerful and materialistic market-based society that pushes consumable products and services as the quick and easy solution to most problems. 

In short, our culture simply does not care enough about this.

Jay Kimiecik:

To me, this is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.

James Loy:

And the challenge is tremendous. 

Jay Kimiecik:

Because there is no infrastructure in place. There is no place for people to go to work on these things in my humble opinion. So if the systems are not in place to support you, then, guess what, you stay on the path. 

James Loy:

These paths and paths that others so often create for us, they come in many forms such as self-help books or as similar kinds of expert-driven advice or standardized prescriptive plans that undermine the autonomy and individualism that a true eudemonic experience needs. 

So, in a way, this is a story about resistance and revolution, and in more ways than one.

If the first health-based revolution was around disease treatment. Then the second, of which we are now in the midst, is about disease prevention. But Kimiecik would have us battle against dominate paradigms to push ahead even further still.

But first, people need to understand that many established cultural norms and social systems may be working against them in subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle ways.

Then, they must also do the hard soul-searching work of actively finding their own inner imperatives for living and being -- even if the idea does sound a bit idealistic at first, or even a little bohemian to some.

Jay Kimiecik:

You mean to tell me that the reason I haven’t been successful in being physically active or haven’t been successful in changing the way I eat or I haven’t been successful in getting the sleep that I want, you are telling me that I haven’t been able to do those things is because I am not living out my inner imperative? Yes. That is exactly why.

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*Intro/outro music used in podcasts: "Tech Toys" by Lee Rosevere