The Art of Happiness?

What is Happiness?

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gives us one take on what is required of a person in order to be happy. He writes:

“…the function of a man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a certain kind of rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a13).

Central to Aristotle’s concept of happiness is virtue, an all too important connection in his vision of the good life. Humans are to cultivate the necessary virtues that will lead them to excellence and therefore, happiness. This is why Aristotle refers to happiness as an “activity of the soul” in harmony with virtue.

But why should we subscribe to Aristotle’s description of a happy life instead of Seneca’s or John Stuart Mill, or any of the worlds leading philosophers?

Put simply, our modern conceptions of happiness have been plagued by materialism. For many, happiness has become a material and/or temporal project rooted in what takes place outside of ourselves. Such a project is not wrong per se, but fails to see happiness for what is, that is, a state of mind, as Aristotle has suggested. Happiness is an excellence of the soul that can certainly be aided by material objects but does not need them in order to flourish.

What do you think?

By Ricardo Huerta

Image: Philip and Karen Smith via Getty Images



3 thoughts on “The Art of Happiness?

  1. I wholly agree that materialism has skewed our idea of happiness in this age. Perhaps, it is not just that materialism distracts us from happiness–the focus on tangible things actively attributes to sadness. Buddhists necessarily link suffering to attachment, often to things of the material world. The Confucian concept of authenticity as the mark of morality may be a way to bridge the gap between the two extremes.

  2. “…the focus on tanglible things actively attributes to sadness” is a curious thought. It is when we become distracted by possession and excess that we begin to lose sight of ourselves, our community, and a divine power. It isn’t until we begin to set our focus on the intangible ideas outside of ourselves (truth, goodness, beauty) that we can find true happiness.
    Perhaps the rise of Minimalism can be attributed to a void we as a collective society need to fill. A void created by obsession with the material and a forebearance to a true connection with nature.

  3. A couple of quick thoughts… In everyday conversation I think we use happiness, pleasure, and joy almost interchangeably yet this post has me thinking of how they are different. I wonder if training ourselves to be more precise on this point would be helpful in developing realistic expectations for the activities of life and avoiding disappointment.

    Second reflection, how is beauty related to happiness (pleasure, and joy)? This seems to be a possible external, but not material inspiration (cause?) for happiness. I’m thinking here of a profound encounter with beauty that re-orients life.

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