Strategic HR

Eudaimonia: There’s No Flourishing Without Struggle

In 2015, I changed my job title from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Eudaimonia Officer. I hypothesized that cultivating eudaimonia—the ancient Greek word indicating “human flourishing”—would make Widen one of the world’s best places to work.flourishing

Judging by Widen’s financial performance, employee satisfaction surveys, and talent retention, I believe that eudaimonia is a recipe for maximizing human potential. But the pursuit of eudaimonia forced me to reexamine how groups “flourish,” and how that word might be misconstrued.

Flourishing is an ancient riddle that religions, philosophies, and ideologies have all tried to solve. Why would a present-day CEO do any better? Well, we have some advantages today. Access to information and research is limitless. The rise of the scientific method and mass data analysis gives us deeper insight into human nature. And we have the freedom to take risks without dire consequences, like starvation.

To be a Chief Eudaimonia Officer is to examine what flourishing is, who will thrive in your company, and how to sustain well-being as an individual and as a community. I’ll share what that exploration has surfaced and why it might change your perspective on “happiness” at work.

Defining Eudaimonia

Every spiritual tradition and philosophy has a perspective on what it means to live a good life. Most if not all are compatible with the idea of human flourishing. Anthony Bradley, professor of Theology and Ethics of The King’s College in New York, writes that flourishing “… is characterized by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design.”

Bradley’s definition expands upon what we might interpret as “happiness,” “satisfaction,” or “engagement” in a workplace. I’ve used the multidimensional wellness model from the National Wellness Institute in a similar way, finding that when work/life balance is treated more like an integration and less like a balance, flourishing is possible.

No matter which model you adopt, the pursuit of holistic wellness is not without struggle. Often times corporate perks like massages, the world’s best coffee, free beer, and unlimited vacation days misrepresent what it means to flourish. As the self-proclaimed Chief Eudaimonia Officer, I feel it’s my duty to report the truth .

Flourishing isn’t a matter of hedonism or pleasure. People need to experience struggle, adversity, and pain to flourish. Living according to our design, as Bradley puts it, doesn’t mean endless days of pleasantries. We are capable of meeting challenges, though initially they may present themselves as insurmountable. It is within those very challenges where meaningful stories emerge, lessons are learned, and our potential is furthered. But what types of people find meaning rather than helplessness in the face of challenges?

Irrational Optimists

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist, spent more than a year in concentration camps. His account of the experience, Man’s Search for Meaning, was tragically optimistic. Frankl wrote that in the camps, “… it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” The only choice the prisoners had was whether or not to extract meaning from their suffering.

Our struggles are trivial relative to Frankl’s account yet he gives us incredible power in how to think about the bad things that happen to us. Modern teaching infers that we don’t have to accept or “settle” for anything unpleasant, especially not at work. Consider the serial job-hopping in technology. Employees spend an average of 2 years or less at the major tech companies. Maybe job-hopping is opportunistic, or maybe when things get tough, people don’t want to deal with it.

Last year, I asked myself: What I am observing in my environment that works? Why do people stay at Widen?

I hypothesize that optimism keeps people in challenging work environments even when there’s an easy out. On my learning quest for a deeper understanding of optimism, I found the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of positive psychology. In his book, Learned Optimism, he provides an optimism test, and I’ve used it to assess the explanatory style of some of Widen’s current team and potential hires, scoring several people on how they explained good and bad events.

The findings thus far reveal that my colleagues are a hopeful bunch.  Dr. Seligman highlights that the most important of all the results is the “hope score,” which measures how we isolate bad events and the level of pervasiveness and permanence we grant to those bad things.

There’s a few scores that were surprising, and after seeing a trend in responses, I applied my own interpretations.  For example, if a good thing happens and you think it’s because of something you did, Dr. Seligman rates that as optimistic. Fair enough. However, when a good thing happens we might not take full credit because we’re working in a team setting.  So a low score in this segment doesn’t necessarily indicate pessimism; it might point to humility.

Optimism and hopefulness influences how an individual will respond to struggle, arguably a condition necessary for eudaimonia. But how does that optimism become part of a company culture?

Struggle is a Blessing

Around 2002, I almost left Widen, the company I run today. A coworker encouraged me to create the role I wanted here, instead of leaving to take that role elsewhere. After talking to the owner about transforming Widen into a software company, he said, “I’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself.”

“Super, I’ll take it.”

That challenge and its risks helped give me purpose. There was struggle and conflict to reposition a company known for prepress, a market that was quickly evaporating. Many resisted a transformation, wanting to stay the course to revive the legacy business.  Others were optimistic, sometimes irrationally so, that we could turn the corner. Nothing was certain or easy.

Perhaps businesses struggle with flourishing because they’re trying to avoid unpleasantness, misguided by the label of happiness. I love to smile at work and my job does make me happy, but that’s not my aim. In fact, aiming for happiness might make things worse. Researchers at the University of Melbourne find that the more people pressure themselves to feel happy when they’re not, the more that depressive feeling increases.

Instead, embrace the uncomfortable work and love the struggle. It’s messy and disorganized, but thrilling and invigorating. We can best serve our future customers by embracing the chaos.  Widen just wrapped up one of the best growth years yet, and that’s a great indication we need to change, again.  We need to get more uncomfortable. So much so that “internal comfort” is listed on our S.W.O.T. analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) as a threat to the organization.

Sometimes, getting uncomfortable is as simple as having a conversation. A friend who founded and runs a successful pizza business helped me realize the simplicity of getting uncomfortable when he said, “There’s a conversation you don’t want to have today. Go have it.”

A great lesson from being Chief Eudaimonia Officer is that flourishing is a way to maximize human potential, and that potential only emerges under strain and within communities that cultivate optimism and hopefulness as virtues. The eudaimonious workplace is one where people stick together through challenges, and in doing so create meaning. The Chief Eudaimonia Officer is a person who has the honor to find and lead people who accept that journey.

Matthew GonneringMatthew Gonnering is the CEO of Widen, a marketing technology company founded in 1948. His team solves marketing and creative problems with digital asset management (DAM) software. Under Matthew’s leadership, Widen has become a WorldBlu Freedom-Centered Workplace™ and Comparably’s Best Place to Work.