It is safe to say that modern men and women are obsessed with happiness. Of course this is hardly a unique situation. Every generation and community is concerned with happiness in one way or another, although it is important to remember that not every culture has defined happiness in the same way; not ever culture defines happiness in terms of wealth and satisfaction. Indeed, the great philosopher Aristotle had much to say on the matter.
According to Aristotle, all human action is for the good. Now this may sound hopelessly naive, but really Aristotle is making a psychological point. We do whatever we do because we perceive it to be desirable in one way or another. In a sense this should seem obvious. We are motivated by what attracts and appeals to our desires, hopes, and aspirations. But we should not take this only to be true of isolated actions. In fact, various plans of action appear attractive to us because we believe that they will improve life in general. Simply put, we all want to create desirable lives; we are hard-wired to strive for the good life. This is an undeniable fact of human experience and human psychology.
However, the burning question is just what does it mean to live the good life? What does it mean live well? According to Aristotle the good life is happiness. Now at first this may sound trite but it is actually quite significant. For Aristotle happiness is not the result of a life well-lived. It is not a consequence, and it does not primarily consist in a life that leads to happy feelings. This latter point pushes against our greatest mistake about happiness.
Many seem to think that a good life produces happiness; it creates feelings of contentment and satisfaction. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with feelings of contentment and satisfaction. All things considered it is better to experience satisfaction over dissatisfaction but this is not the core of happiness for Aristotle. Rather, he insists that “happiness” is a term that signifies “living well” and that it consists primarily (although not exclusively) in acting well. I think Aristotle really has a point here. Just think about it. Many appear to find satisfaction in selfishness, materialism, consumerism, vanity, et cetera. But of course decency demands that such satisfaction is not praiseworthy. Clearly feelings of satisfaction are not sufficient to call a life well-lived or for that matter “happy.”
If Aristotle is right, then we must look to something beyond results and feelings to designate a life as happy. Rather we must look to deeds, habits, relationships, and patterns of conduct — the course of life and character. To be frank, looking at results alone is mere consequentialism, which is poor philosophy indeed. This is more important than we are likely to think.
So many of us labor under the delusion that happiness is about producing certain feelings within our bodies, whether physical pleasure or deeper feelings of satisfaction. This is problematic for two very important reasons.
First, accepting the sentimental results model of happiness sets us up on an endless treadmill of trying to create certain feelings. This simply requires too much work and explains a great deal of the desperation experienced by modern men and women. It’s just too much work to keep our ego’s and bodies satisfied by endless rounds of stimulating activities.
Second, the results model is misleading. It implies that if we are not constantly experiencing certain feelings then life is not going well — there must be something wrong with life or my significant relationships. But this is just non-sense. Not everyone possesses a sanguine temperament. Constantly smiling and telling jokes does not necessarily indicate a life well-lived. Moreover, passing feelings of melancholy or sadness or boredom are perfectly compatible with living well. Indeed, sometimes to live well, to be happy, actually entails some pain and suffering.
The classical model of happiness with its focus on the course of life and character avoids dead ends of a focus on creating feelings. Instead living well means cultivating a virtuous character and consistently acting with excellence. I’ll have more to say on this in my next post, “The Real Meaning of Happiness: Excellence, Character, and Rectitude.”