Reading With Purpose: A Personal Reflection

October 4, 2021

Elliott Friedman

In my research, I look at the connections between eudaimonia and health. The term eudaimonia traces back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and in essence, it’s the idea that a good life can be had if we can identify and pursue the best that is within us, maximizing our potential. Eudaimonia is often assessed as the extent to which we feel our lives have meaning and purpose, we feel connected to other people, and we feel accepting of ourselves, warts and all. But how do we know which path(s) will bring us a sense of meaning, intimacy with others, and a life with which we can feel satisfied?

For me, one answer comes from Mark Edmundson, University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. In his thought-provoking book “Why Read?” Edmundson argues that literature can provide models for how to live a life. He notes that when he reads a major work, he asks questions like “Is this work desirable as a source of belief?” (p. 56). The reader must decide whether the book offers guidance on how to live that resonates with the reader, and through encounters with diverse ideas, the reader becomes more certain of her own. Importantly, in Edmundson’s view, this question should be applied to major works offering perspectives consistent with our personal and cultural values as well as those that are inconsistent; we are best served by reading broadly.

This summer, at the behest of an old friend, I read The Warden by Anthony Trollope, the first book in the 6-volume “Chronicles of Barsetshire.” It was the perfect read after an exhausting and dispiriting year. The entire series is about the church, and The Warden introduces a recurring set of characters living in the town of Barchester. What made it the perfect read was the human scale of the story. The event that sets the story in motion is relatively minor, but the ripples that result reveal all the ennobling and less honorable traits of each character. No single person is perfectly good or perfectly bad. Trollope clearly has great affection for all the characters, and each has a place in society.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though the book was written in 1855, the issues, conflicts, character flaws, sacrifices, and emotions were utterly familiar. I found this enormously comforting, a reminder that however uniquely bleak our current situation seems, the same human strengths and failings have existed for as long as we have existed. And these situations and characters (along with the humor and delicacy of Trollope’s writing) did indeed offer ways to live that I could consider, as Edmundson argues great books can do.

So my “tip” for this week is to seek encounters with great ideas and literature, not just because they’ve been assigned for a class and not to seem smarter, but rather as one path toward a better understanding of yourself and the kind of life you want to pursue.


Key References:

Edmundson, M. (2004). Why Read? New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Trollope, A. (1885). The Warden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Elliot Friedman

Friedman is the William and Salley Berner professor of Gerontology in Human Development and Family Studies in the college of Health and Human Sciences His research interests include how psychological experiences affect biological processes related to health with an emphasis on physiological regulation in middle and later life, psychological well-being and health, biopsychosocial integration and successful aging.  Be sure to check back each week for another wellness tip of the week!

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