Aristotle’s secret to happiness: what will make us happy now?

According to Dr Tim Lomas and his recently-updated Positive Lexicography Project, there exist over 400 foreign terms for happiness that have no direct English translation.

Among them is “eudaimonia,” meaning “good spirit” or flourishing, which Aristotle deemed so important that he wrote his seminal work Nicomachean Ethics specifically to address the problem of how human beings could achieve it. 2,500 years later, Aristotle’s work remains the most influential theory of what it means to live a good human life.

How does Aristotle suggest we achieve happiness in the age of social media one-up-manship, where technology means we’re becoming starved of human contact? And, more to the point, what can a philosopher who lived almost 2,500 years ago teach us about how to achieve happiness in the 21st century?

Featured image by Ludovisi Collection on Wikimedia Commons.


Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: in brief

There is perhaps no more wondrous set of questions for human beings than that which Aristotle addresses in Nicomachean Ethics: what is the nature of happiness? How do we achieve happiness? And why do we fail to achieve happiness?

For Aristotle, happiness is not merely a subjective emotional state, something we have to define for ourselves as we feel it; rather, it is an objective state – closer to the concept of well-being or flourishing.


Happiness according to Aristotle

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that, in order to be happy, we must live in accordance with the function of human nature.

The function of a knife, for example, is to cut. The function of an animal is to enjoy sensuous pleasures. For Aristotle, the function of human beings is to reason, since it is reason that makes us different from other animals; people are essentially rational (reason-based) beings.

As human beings, we can exercise reason regarding both theoretical and practical matters. So, our function – and therefore the key to real happiness – is to be realized through the proper exercise of theoretical and practical reason.

To do this, says Aristotle, we must recognize and act upon the middle way between extremes of action and character (in other words, the middle point between vices). These “middle way” character traits are called “virtues.” For example, the virtue that sits between foolhardiness and cowardice is courage.

“If… we take the characteristic activity of a human being to be a certain kind of life; and if we take this kind of life to be activity of the soul and actions in accordance with reason… and a characteristic activity to be accomplished well when it is accomplished in accordance with the appropriate virtue; then if this is so, the human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle outlines many of these virtues that we must practice to achieve happiness, including:

  • Intelligence and scientific (or certain) knowledge.
  • Practical wisdom: the ability to “deliberate well about what is good and expedient for [oneself].”
  • Temperance: restraint, usually with regard to pleasurable activities.
  • Generosity and friendship.
  • Courage: The tendency to act in order to achieve some good even when facing the risk of physical harm.
  • Contemplation: reflection on eternal truths.

Aristotle considers contemplation to be the highest realization of happiness. He writes in Book X.7-8: “If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable to expect that it is in accordance with the highest virtue… This activity is that of contemplation.” He thinks that philosophical thinking is the most fulfilling activity we can do and will result in proper happiness.

In the face of moral dilemmas, Aristotle thinks we cannot use a general principle to determine the right course of action. Instead, we need to look at what good and virtuous people would do, as these people would be able to really understand a situation and see what is best to do.


The value of material goods

“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

To be happy, then, one must meet two conditions. First, one must be completely virtuous. And second, one must be ‘equipped with external goods’. The quotation implies that complete virtue depends on some level of stable material comfort. In other words, there are some objective conditions for someone to be happy. We might speculate that Aristotle thinks one would need stable shelter, food, and friendship.


The importance of controlling our vices

In Aristotle’s definition of happiness, pleasure is understood as the function of animals. The “good life” that we seek is not one characterized by pleasures such as sex and money.

The reasons why human beings still seek these pleasures is an important secondary theme in Nicomachean Ethics:

“Moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones.”

In other words, pleasure tends to lead us toward bad acts and toward a lack of self-control. In order to be happy we must control our vices, no matter how much pain (or discomfort) it causes us. According to Aristotle, this is the only way to achieve a life filled with long-term happiness, rather than one filled with temporary pleasure from our vices.

To Aristotle, pleasure is often not a good thing unless it is connected with virtuous activity itself: a courageous act of self-sacrifice, for instance, might be pleasant to the virtuous person. If we are virtuous then we will derive pleasure from those virtuous acts.

Furthermore, we must be dedicated to achieving this virtuous, happy life: virtues such as justice, restraint, and practical wisdom must be developed over time by cultivating virtuous habits. In order to become such a good person one needs to be raised well and have enjoyed a good education. Aristotle’s moral system is therefore based on the moral judgements of exemplary human beings.


Conclusion: what can Aristotle teach us about 21st-century happiness?

Pursue happiness (not pleasure)

Aristotle defines human happiness (which can only be sought via virtuous means) as being different from sensuous pleasures (which he describes as what we know now as vices). Our function as human beings, he says, is not to pursue pleasures such as sex, money, and rock and roll (that’s the animal life), but instead to pursue virtues such as knowledge, courage, and temperance.

Take satisfaction in good deeds

A good person has good character traits—such as generosity, friendship, and kindness—and will use these traits in making moral judgements and decisions. They will take pleasure in sacrificing their own comfort for the good of another. In the 21st-century we are surrounded by the suffering of others: Aristotle would argue that, in order to be happy, we should take pleasure in charity work and acts of kindness.

Value what material goods you have (within reason)

By placing value on being “sufficiently equipped with external goods,” Aristotle suggests that one must have a suitable level of material comfort to be able to be moral. In modern times, this might mean having suitable shelter, food, and funds to be able to live a good life and be happy, without valuing any non-essential pleasures above virtues such as friendship, practical knowledge, and generosity.

When in doubt, take inspiration from good people

Complete virtue, argues Aristotle, requires both the virtues of character (courage, for example) and the virtues of intellect, especially practical wisdom. Good and noble people demonstrate these traits in everything they do so, when faced with moral dilemmas, we should look to them for guidance.

Spend more time thinking and learning

Aristotle considers contemplation to be the highest virtue to which human beings can aspire, alongside intelligence and practical knowledge. He thinks that philosophical thinking is the most fulfilling activity we can do and will result in proper happiness. When combined with other intellectual virtues, Aristotle would argue, we will finally experience complete happiness.