Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” For him and most of his contemporaries, happiness referred not to an emotion but the long-term pattern of action, the sum of which was your moral character. It is the habits of virtue that are acquired over years of exercising the appropriate virtues.
A person doesn’t feel happy as much as happiness is a general state of being. Viewing happiness as something in the world as opposed to an individual feeling is not the way we usually understand the term.
The modern orientation is dominated by individual psychology. But something of the older understanding of happiness as essentially relational still exists in a secondary meaning. For example, we continue to refer to “good times,” or a particular era in a country, or to a happy period in a person’s life. This refers not to feeling happy per se—the kind of happiness that brings a smile to our face—but to a condition that arises in a larger context of actions, conditions, and behavior. To live well is to be good. A happy life is a good life, on this account, and a good life is a virtuous life.
“Happiness is the highest good,” Aristotle wrote. And happiness is realized through the practice of virtue. Happiness casts its gaze outward and is obtainable through the cultivation of moral habits.
The story of beautiful Narcissus is the cautionary tale. He drowns in his own reflection because in his love of himself there is no room for others. For Aristotle, friendship is central to human well-being. Human flourishing isn’t possible without it.
“Friends enhance our ability to think and to act,” Aristotle wrote. This isn’t just any way of thinking or acting but consists of good judgment and virtuous behavior. Friends hold us up to our better selves, directing us toward the good.
You need friends to do good and without them you are likely to fail. It is a failure to be virtuous, and without virtue you can’t be happy. Narcissus drowns because in his self-love there is no one to bring him to develop his moral character.
According to Aristotle, it isn’t good luck or fortune that determines whether you will be happy, although he acknowledges the importance of possessing certain goods as making the attaining of a good life more likely. Friendship, wealth, and power all contribute to a good life.
Conversely, happiness is endangered if you are severely lacking in certain advantages—for example, if you are extremely ugly or disfigured, or have lost children or good friends through death. Tragedy and misfortune hinder human flourishing. This is the impetus behind eliminating social injustices and addressing basic human needs—to open up life’s possibilities even to those beset by bad luck.
Today, I think Aristotle would have added the disadvantage of clinical depression, for, as we now know, this is a bio-chemical illness that is beyond the power of the mind to control through a change of attitude or behavior. Other forms of mental illnesses fall into this category. These are medical issues, not philosophical ones. In addition, I think he would have understood how the subordination of women was contrary to the good life. Parity in terms of power between men and women is necessary for the over-all happiness in society.
Basic needs of nutrition and shelter are necessary for a good life, as is access to knowledge. Good fortune and happenstance play a role in happiness but typically luck isn’t a determining factor. As the work of psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman demonstrates, factors such as money and health account for less than 20 percent of the variance in life satisfaction.
People rise above material circumstances by developing their moral character so that you act virtuously despite the limitations. It is possible to have the disposition to be good most of the time despite the lack of material support.
By Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W.
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