“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less” — Socrates
A couple of boxes of pizza could get you far in terms of pure happiness. But sometimes you need something more than diabetes to make you happy in the long run. And it could be hard to find that missing thing that makes you happy, don’t worry, all of us are like that.
The pursuit of happiness is perhaps the most common yet the most difficult to attain goal any person could have. For millennia thinkers have pondered on what the best way to achieve happiness would be. Despite this, no one has been able to create a definitive way, if they did I doubt you would need to read this. However, many great thinkers have thought up of some ideas. Let’s explore them.
This will be a series of posts that will be posted weekly that will cover lots of philosophers and their view on how to have a happy life.
Let’s begin with the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, the father of western philosophy. Aristotle was quite the thinker, in modern terms, he wouldn’t just be a philosopher but also a scientist. He’s the founder of the first scientific institute, the Lyceum.
According to Aristotle in one of his most influential works, The Nicomachean Ethics where he ponders the purpose of human existence, happiness is the ultimate end and purpose of human existence. Everything in your life should go towards you living a life that you could consider a happy one.
Aristotle believes that in order to understand something you must understand it’s purpose. The purpose of a knife is to cut, and the purpose of a Rubik’s cube is to be solved. Now what is the purpose of a human? Well, Aristotle says, the purpose of human must be a goal that is an end in itself since if it is not it is meaningless. How does he say so? Let me explain.
Some goals are subordinate to other goals and those “other goals” are subordinate to other other goals. For example, an engineer student’s goal is to finish his education, but this goal is subordinate to his goal of wishing to invent things, which is subordinate to his goal of wishing to make people’s lives easier and so and so forth. This could go on and on and Aristotle says that the purpose of a person would be at the end of that chain. And he says that at the end of it is the desire to be happy. In his own words:
And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honor, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sake, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.
But what is happiness to Aristotle? To him, happiness is to reason because that is what sets us apart from everything else. To explain this he created a hierarchical view of nature.
- First there are inanimate objects, wood, rocks, mineral, dirt, and so on. these things have no instincts and are obviously not sentient. They are beyond stupid in a way.
- Next are the vegetative things. They are set apart from inanimate objects because they are alive, they seek nourishment.
- Next are animals, these are set apart from both inanimate objects and vegetative things because they are a higher form of life. They seek pleasure and can experience emotions.
- And lastly we have us, the humans. We are set apart from the other three tiers because of our unique ability for reason. We are able to think logically in a way the an animal can not.
With that in mind, it is clear that Aristotle believed that the ultimate purpose of a human is to live a life that fosters reason, and it is through that that we are able to find happiness or as it is usually translated to Greek “eudaimonia.” However this translation is a bit misleading. And this matters, as I’ll soon show you. Aristotle doesn’t wish us to live a happy life, he wants us to achieve eudaimonia.
Happiness in the western sense is a state of mind. For example, you could be happy when you are writing or when you are having a cold drink with friends. But eudaimonia is not something you experience in life, it’s what you should experience at the end of it. It is the ultimate goal. You can’t say that your life is happy because it still hasn’t finished yet. In the same way that you can’t say that a basketball game was a good game at the 2nd quarter.
“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”
Aristotle also believed that in the attainment of this goal you must make decisions that are difficult. And to guide you through them you must have virtues and a good moral character. You must follow those virtues strictly, even if they are difficult. In his own words:
…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a 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.
In other words, the decisions that will lead us to a happy life can be done by simply being a good person. You could think of virtue as the way to a happy life. But what is virtue? Having virtue, to Aristotle, simply means doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, towards the right people. It seems pretty vague but Aristotle says that there’s no need to be specific since a virtuous person would just know what to do.
Virtue is when your actions fall into the sweet spot of deficiency and excess. It’s actions that fall into the so called “Golden Mean” where you don’t do too much yet not too little. And once you are able to do this consistently, you can go onto the path leading to eudaimonia
In summary, Aristotle believed that in order to fulfill your purpose you must lead a life that fosters rationality through your moral character. And it is only at the end of that life can you ever truly be happy.
Here’s a video that explains it way better than I ever can (I didn’t make it by the way, all credit goes to crash course, be sure to check out their YouTube channel):
Next on our list is Epicurus, he was born on the Greek island of Samos to Athenian parents. He was influenced by Democritus, Aristotle, and Pyrrho. He founded the school of Epicurianism (very creative, I know) and he also propounded hedonism, the philosophy that pleasure is the only thing with intrinsic value.
Now imagine for me this scenario. You’re walking around in a garden, you just got back from a lovely meal with your friends. And the sun was shining, there were people in robes walking about and having pleasant conversations. The Mediterranean ocean-air blows past you you bringing with it the soft scent of nature. That’s what it’s like to be in one of Epicurus’ “Pleasure Gardens”.
In today’s age, the words “Pleasure Garden” might create a very different type of scenario in people’s mind but trust me when I say, people lived very modest lives in those gardens. Only eating bread and fruits, and wearing simple garments like robes and slippers. As he says it himself:
“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.”
Epicurus believed that through these pleasure gardens people could learn what it’s like to experience true happiness. This idea actually became so popular at the time that, at the height of it’s popularity, over 400,000 people were in Epicurian communes.
Epicurus knows that we all desire happiness, everyone does. But the question is, “What is happiness?” His answer here is pleasure. As he says:
“Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”
Epicurus also divided desires into two groups. Necessary, and unnecessary desires. Necessary desires are the desires you need for producing happiness, these include ridding the body of physical pain, the desire for inner tranquility, and so on. Unnecessary desires includes desires that give way to unhappiness. An example of an unnecessary desire in the modern day would be a luxury car. Desiring the car would make you anxious to obtain it, upset if you lose it, and that desire will push you to even more unnecessary desires. So it is important that you rid yourself of these desires to avoid pain and unhappiness.
According to Epicurus, most people’s natural state would be a cycle of pain and pleasure. When we are in pain we naturally seek more pleasure and when we do attain pleasure we are brought back down to pain by our unnecessary desires. In order to break this cycle, Epicurus says that we need to achieve a state of neutrality called ataraxia. So the goal is not to be pleasured all the time, that is simply impossible, rather the goal is to have an absence of pain.
This state is of ataraxia can be obtained not through gaining more and more physical objects, or pleasures but rather through contemplation and the achievement of serenity.
Epicurus also noted that it requires wisdom in order to know which pleasures are unacceptable, as well as to decide which pains are acceptable. For example, it is pleasurable to drink alcohol, however too much of it could corrupt a person. An epecurian would not shun it entirely, however they will know when enough is enough. An example of an acceptable pain would actually be sadness. It would really seem backwards to accept sadness when you’re trying to become happy but it might actually help you appreciate what you have more.
That last point is very important especially in the modern day where we are bombarded every single day through social media with things that can cause jealousy and envy, implanting us with unnecessary desires that only dig us deeper into unhappiness. At the same time, we are told to avoid all pain, especially sadness, but emotions can’t be helped so instead we hide them from everyone and pretend to be happy instead of being true to their emotions and gaining what they can from it.
In summary, Epicurus believed that happiness is the key to pleasure, that there are necessary and unnecessary desires, that the aim is for a state of neutrality where there is no pain and that this state is gained through contemplation and not through physical things. Here’s a video I found on YouTube that’s really helpful in understanding Epicurus. Be sure to send them some love.
This concludes the first part of this series! I hope you could use what you learned to live a better life. The next post will be put up next week on Wednesday so be sure to follow my page to keep yourself updated.