Around 2,345 years ago Aristotle wrote: ‘Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence’. My initial response, when I read that, was that Aristotle had exaggerated the importance of happiness. After learning more about his view of happiness, however, I now think he may have been right.
In my view the most important reason why people should spend some time thinking about the meaning of happiness is because this may help them live happier lives. I hope the reasons for this will become obvious as I briefly discuss different views about the meaning of happiness and what Aristotle would have thought about those views.
First, happiness is a positive feeling. This kind of happiness has been measured Daniel Kahneman and others using surveys which ask people what they were doing at various times during the previous day and how they felt – whether happy, anxious, angry etc. - while doing those things. Those kinds of surveys show that we tend to be least happy when doing things like commuting and most happy when doing things like socializing.
The happiness we obtain from socializing is not the kind of happiness that Aristotle had in mind when he suggested that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. Aristotle recognized our need for amusement, but he said ‘... it would be strange if our end or purpose in life was just to seek amusement’.
The second view I want to discuss is that happiness is satisfaction with life. Attempts are made in the World Values Survey and elsewhere to measure this kind of happiness. These surveys ask people to rate how satisfied they are with life as a whole, for example, in terms of a number from 1 to 10.
That may seem unlikely to produce sensible results. Nevertheless, the responses to these survey questions do seem to make sense when averaged over large numbers of people. The results tend to line up with what we would expect from a priori reasoning about what factors might be important for satisfaction with life. The people who are most satisfied with their lives tend to have relatively high standards of living, good relations with other people, good health and a strong sense of achievement.
I think the American humourist Josh Billings, who lived in the 19th century, got the importance of some of these factors in perspective when he said: ‘Health is like money, we never have a true idea of its value until we lose it’. The same is often true of our relationships with other people and the sense of achievement that many of us obtain from our work and our hobbies. We may not be conscious of how valuable these things are to us until we lose them.
It is interesting that the factors necessary for humans to have high life satisfaction are also important for other animals. We can’t ask them to provide a numerical rating on their satisfaction with life, but it seems reasonable to assume that they too have more satisfying lives when they have a high standard of living (appropriate food and shelter), good relationships with other animals and their owners and good health. They even seem to need a sense of achievement: I know of a cat that seems to gain a sense of achievement from bringing home rabbits that it catches on its hunting expeditions and leaving them on the door mat for its owners; and sheep dogs seem to obtain a sense of achievement from rounding up chooks in the farm yard when there are no sheep available.
When Aristotle wrote that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, he had in mind something more than just life satisfaction. He wrote that it is ‘only when we develop our truly human capacities sufficiently ... that we have lives blessed with happiness’. What he had in mind is that happiness is the practice of virtue: "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason". Aristotle regarded philosophical wisdom as the highest form of happiness.
At this point I part company with Aristotle. With the benefit of modern scientific knowledge it seems more appropriate to identify truly human capacities with our ability to reflect upon our own lives, our attitudes and our emotions. Developing our truly human capacities is realization of potential. It involves developing:
• our sense of personal identity - who we are and what we are becoming, what we like and dislike and what we identify with;
• an awareness of our own attitudes and emotional responses to things that happen to us and of our ability to manage our feelings;
• an awareness of the characteristics of our own individual personalities – for example, whether we have a natural inclination to think the glass is half full or half empty; and
• our own sense of humour. In the words of Oscar Wilde: ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously’.
So, we need to spend some time thinking about the meaning of happiness in order to develop an understanding of what happiness means to each of us as individuals. In the words of the song, ‘happiness is different things to different people’.
This post is based on a speech I gave last week at the inaugural meeting of the South Coast Gourmet Toastmasters.