In my final thoughts for this series on happiness, I would like to address the original problem posed in The Secret to Happiness: How to define happiness.
Merriam-Webster provides the following definitions:
a. a state of well-being and contentment
b. a pleasurable or satisfying experience
In this discussion, I am not referring to specific experiences or brief feelings of pleasure. I am more referring the first definition; a state of well-being and contentment.
To further explain, I would like to make reference to Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his work, Nicomachean Ethics, the word happiness was translated from the Greek word, eudaimonia, which is more accurately defined as “well-being” and relates to the idea of human flourishing. Therefore, in his discussion of happiness, he is actually discussing “well-being.”
Aristotle explains that every human activity aims at some desirable end. The highest ends are “self-sufficient” (ends in themselves) while others are considered subordinate or intermediate, meaning that they are means to higher ends.
“Happiness is desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. But honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves, but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient.” Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1)
In other words, we seek happiness for its own sake, whereas we seek all other things ultimately for the sake of happiness. He further explains that happiness is the only good that we seek for its own sake. This means that wealth, power, success, and even intelligence are all sought, not as an end in themselves, but for the sake of happiness. With this understanding, it becomes easier to appreciate what Aristotle meant when he said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
A second important point is that Aristotle treats happiness as an activity:
“Happiness is not a state; we must rather class happiness as an activity. Some activities are necessary, i.e. choiceworthy for some other end, while others are choiceworthy in themselves. Clearly, then, we should count happiness as one of these activities that are choiceworthy in themselves, not as one of those choiceworthy for some other end. For happiness lacks nothing, but is self-sufficient; and an activity is choiceworthy in itself when nothing further beyond it is sought from it.” Nicomachean Ethics (Book 10)
Using the words activity and choice, he is implying that happiness involves ACTION. It is not something that you passively await to gain. It involves choosing HOW you wish to live, and participating in the activities that are conducive to that end. Therefore, happiness is the activity of living well.
Can this be applied to modern life? Well, if we accept that happiness is the highest end that we all seek, and that it involves the action of living well, then we can use these concepts as a basis for creating a life plan.
In A Guide for Rational Living, Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapy, said, “In many important respects, then, action, particularly creative, intensely absorbing activity, is one of the mainstays of happy living. Believe otherwise and live by a philosophy of inertia and inaction, and you will often sabotage your own potential satisfaction.” Here, Ellis is saying that action is a characteristic of happy living. Fulfilling activities promote happiness, and I believe that fulfilling activity is accompanied by happiness; i.e. happiness of pursuit.
Eudaimonia, translated as “human flourishing,” is very much related to the modern concepts of self-fulfillment (the fulfillment of your capacities) and self-actualization (realizing one’s full potential). The activities which create fulfillment will be different for each person. However, it is imperative that we define this for ourselves, and actively participate in those activities. This is what creates the type of happiness that will persist despite the ups and downs of life.
In my contemplation of this subject, my goal was to explore the idea that happiness comes from within, how thinking can affect mindset, and how to practically apply the findings to everyday life. In this article series, I uncovered 4 ideas that I could put to immediate practical use:
- Choose to have a positive frame of mind
- Refuse to be unhappy
- Alter or eliminate sources of unhappiness
- Engage in actions that create fulfillment
Though not exhaustive, I see this list as both a foundation upon which I can continue to build, as well as a litmus against which I can measure all future pursuits. Additionally, this list highlights one very important thing: Happiness is an action word. It requires activity, therefore you will never find it by sitting and waiting for it.
How active are you in creating conditions for you own happiness? How many of your current activities hinder your ability to live well (happiness)?