Aristotle’s Idea of Happiness: How We Can Use It To Find a Career

Sarah T. – P. 3

We get stuck in the same cycle with every generation. Kids grow up thinking that they’ll be an astronaut or a firefighter who saves the world in their spare time. But what we don’t learn as a kid is that saving the world doesn’t pay the bills, and we’ll all probably end up wearing suits and ties to work every day. According to Aristotle, everything we do should be aimed at reaching our final end. However, doing so may not always bring us money, or at least not enough to support our lifestyle, and our understanding of happiness may be skewed or blinded by the desire to be successful.

Our ability to reason makes humans unique, as it sets us apart from animals and it is the highest function we have. According to Aristotle, when living in accordance with reason, humans can achieve happiness. To use reason is to use intellect for higher thinking, especially in association with others. Therefore, a person should put themselves in situations where such thinking is necessary in order to find happiness. Every action that humans make should answer the question, “is this leading me forward and allowing me to live according to reason?”

According to Aristotle, “the life that consists in the exercise of reason is the best and pleasantest for man – and therefore the happiest” (The Nicomachean Ethics). In today’s world, Aristotle’s idea of happiness means working a desk job and using reason and intellect. The issue is that we can’t do the things that we love because we’re too busy being happy. Aristotle strictly separates work and amusement when he says, “it is absurd to suppose that the end is amusement, and that we toil and moil all our life long for the sake of amusing ourselves”(The Nicomachean Ethics). Rather, he thinks that “we need recreation because we are unable to work continuously,” and therefore, “recreation, then, cannot be the end; for it is taken as a means to the exercise of our faculties” (The Nichomachean Ethics). Amusing ourselves is not our final end; it is only a way to distract ourselves from our work. But why would we need to distract ourselves from our work? According to Aristotle, reason leads to happiness, and so does contemplation. The easiest way to reason and contemplate is to work at a standard job.

I think the time period is different now, and the definition of happiness cannot be as static as Aristotle suggests. Unlike Aristotle, we can’t sit around and contemplate all day, as he believes that “the more contemplation the more happiness is there in a life” (The Nichomachean Ethics). We need money to support ourselves properly in this day and age. The issue is that in order to attain the Aristotelian view of happiness, most people cannot do what they enjoy as a living. Not only is there no reason or contemplation, but also for most people it cannot make money.

Granted, there are some people who make a career out of their passions. In fact, I think these people are the happiest, especially because there is a good chance that they are not as focused on material items as most people are. Aristotle may have had it backwards; reason alone will not bring you happiness, but combined with passion it will. In today’s society we bring kids up letting them think that they can be whatever they want, only to criticize them for having childish dreams when they get older. This idea robs kids of their creativity, and instead they just get in line with all the other kids. We work hard in school so we can get into a good college, get a high paying job so we can support a family, and eventually send our kids to a good school to do the exact same thing as we did. But why? Our final end can’t possibly be to send our kids to school, or to have more money than we know what to do with, especially because extra money has absolutely no value until something is done with it. And yet that path in life is seen as the most reasonable, and therefore according to Aristotle, the happiest.

Society’s focus and dependence on money leaves most people working jobs they hate, and their passions end up being hobbies that they do in their free time, which is not very often. That’s not the way things should be. Aristotle says that, “the function of man, then, is the exercise of his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason and on the other side with reason” (The Nichomachean Ethics). Instead, the function of man should be to do what he loves, because I do not think we were put on this earth to stay in the same place all our lives and make money.

The background of happiness: Aristotle and Mill Compared to Modern Times

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment” or “good fortune” (“Happiness”).

Aristotle thinks that, “the masses who are the least refined suppose it to be pleasure, which is the reason why they aim at nothing higher than the life on enjoyment” (The Nichomachean Ethics).
In saying this, Aristotle makes it seem like only the dullest and most superficial of people think that pleasure is happiness. Contrary to his belief is the idea proposed by John Stuart Mill, who defines happiness as, “pleasure, and the absence of pain” (Utilitarianism). The two ideas are completely opposite, and yet they are both aimed at achieving one goal: happiness. So how can two contradicting ideas lead to the same end? It is most likely a combination of the two that brings humans happiness; living life according to reason, while also trying to find pleasure. It is not reason alone nor pleasure alone.

Aristotle implies that people who believe in the idea of pleasure being happiness will get nowhere with that idea, and he shuts it out in favor of his preferred idea: contemplation. Aristotle, of course because he is a philosopher, thinks that happiness comes through reasoning and thinking alone, because it is the highest function of man, and exercising this function will lead us to our final end.
Relating this to modern society, it could be understood that many adults believe that kids with no drive or direction in life would want to focus on finding pleasure in their lives, rather than thinking about what is best for their future. This could include a stable job as a result of a higher education. In this scenario, the adults with this view would be the Aristotle of their time.

However, though pleasure is still welcome in humanity’s search for happiness, I think that passion should take the place of pleasure, as there is a distinct difference between the two. Pleasure is only temporary, brought on in small doses by satisfying a person’s desires, but it fades and needs constant replacing. Passion, on the other hand, is more life-long. A doctor, for example, is passionate about helping others. It’s not something he does occasionally because he enjoys it for a moment and then moves onto something else that brings him pleasure.

Aristotle left passion out of the equation completely, but it is necessary for finding a balance. We cannot spend all our lives working, using reason and contemplation to attain happiness. We cannot spend an entire life full of recreation either though. Aristotle states that, “of all virtuous exercise it is allowed that the pleasantest is the exercise of wisdom” (Nichomachean Ethics). In my opinion, exercising wisdom would be finding the balance between the two extremes. The easiest way for someone to find balance is to consider what they are passionate about, because that is what will bring them the greatest amount of happiness.

N.d. Photograph. Flickr. Yahoo, 27 Sept. 2006. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <;.

“Happiness.” Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <;.


One thought on “Aristotle’s Idea of Happiness: How We Can Use It To Find a Career

  1. “In today’s world, Aristotle’s idea of happiness means working a desk job and using reason and intellect.”

    How do you figure? How does one achieve a life of contemplation at a desk job (assuming this is your typical desk job, and assuming one is actually doing his work)? I guess I’m just having trouble imagining Aristotle’s ideal of life as being one of the lives of the characters in “Office Space.”

    Also, I’m wondering: how do you think passion figured into Aristotle’s own life? From what you’ve read of him, what would you say he was passionate about?

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