How much are you willing to pay for happiness?



By Haley Tomlin- Period 4

Do you want to get rich quick? Lose weight? Get rid of those awful wrinkles? Have a beautiful tan? Well then you’ve come to the right place… the very profitable and persuasive world of American advertising. Advertising executives are in the business of selling happiness. Everyday millions of Americans are bombarded by billboards, commercials, radio and print. These advertisers are succeeding in satiating our overwhelming desire for instant, short-lived gratification which produces momentary happiness. At the end of the day when the fleeting happiness dissipates we wake up only to begin the futile search for more products that promise the world. The Greek philosopher Aristotle would argue that happiness runs deeper than physical appearance and transient pleasure. In Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle defines happiness as “The good is the final end, and happiness is this.” In other words, happiness is acquired and honed and not fully realized until the end of one’s life when they are able to look back on all that they have achieved. Therefore, advertisers skillfully redirect our focus away from the final end and towards the immediate here and now. By taking a look at Aristotle’s philosophies on happiness we are able to truly grasp the ways in which advertisers skew our perception of happiness.

Today, Aristotle would be quite leary of greedy advertisers who seek to entice consumers with instant gratification. In his Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle introduces the term akrasia which means weakness of the will. He goes on to state “the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes. Preferring a life suitable to beasts”.  Aristotle is portraying how we as consumers are like non reasoning animals as we succumb to false promises of advertisers. We simply buy the products with no thought other than that of satisfying a temporary desire. Just as a lion is entrapped in a snare due to his overwhelming desire for meat. However, it doesn’t take a great philosopher to figure this out. It takes awareness and careful contemplation combined with discipline and restraint to make good decisions that will benefit our overall happiness.

Furthermore, Aristotle believed that “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” (Nichomachean Ethics). This means that Aristotle does believe in trade and commerce and buying things that will support and help our economy grow. However, he would disapprove of the ways in which advertisers try to trick consumers into buying goods that provide temporary happiness. We must knowledgeable and savvy consumers. In other words ,we need to purchase goods that will last us a long time and help us grow in our happiness and virtue. For example, Aristotle would agree with  the purchase of a treadmill over a weightloss supplement because the treadmill allows one to acquire the virtues of discipline and long term health benefits as opposed to a quick fix that is unhealthy for mind and body. With  the example of the treadmill we are able to create a happiness that will never disappear and that can only be built upon. Therefore, Aristotle wants us to contemplate, purchase,  and utilize based on a virtuous principle whereas advertising persuades us to purchase, utilize, become dissatisfied or unhappy, and repeat.

Advertising plays on the innate human desire to want more than we need. Aristotle believes that “in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues… temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.” (Nichomachean Ethics)  This exemplifies how we must find a balance between buying everything and nothing. In other words, as advertising is constantly throwing new things at us we have to be able and willing to discern what is a necessity and what is superfluous. For example, in society today we have become tech addicts. We are under the false perception that obtaining the latest and greatest technological equipment will make our lives easier and create happier individuals. This explains why the line for apple stores all over the world wraps around the block every time a new product is released. But would Aristotle agree that an easy life is a happy one? Advertising tries to sell this “easy life”, however, Aristotle states that “Excellence is never an accident it always the result of high intention sincere effort and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives- choice, not chance determines your destiny.” (Nichomachean Ethics) Therefore, happiness comes through hard work combined with intelligent decision making.

Moreover, advertisers encourage rash impulsive decision making. However, Aristotle includes careful contemplation as an important means to ultimate happiness. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” ( This is what advertisers don’t want you to do. They want you to enter your credit card into the website, call the 1-800 number, or place the highest bid, without even a moment of thought or hesitation. This requires absolutely no contemplation or rationale. I believe that Aristotle today would think that our impulsivity, when it comes to advertising, is childish.  Children are persuaded by every single advertisement or commercial to quickly hound their parents for the newest toy advertised on the Disney Channel. They are oblivious to the fact that there are certain things that they can live without.  They are the advertiser’s dream. However, even though they don’t always exercise it, adults are more capable of discernment and contemplation when it comes to advertising.

Besides being contemplative one must also possess a keen sense of awareness and strong will to avoid being fooled by advertisements. This relates back to Aristotle’s definition of happiness which includes making sacrifices and focusing on long term goals. Advertisers often include catch phrases such as “one time only”, “Last and final appearance”, or “limited supply” etc. This strategy causes people to abandon their long term goals and justify their irrational choices. For example, when tickets for the Michael Jackson tour “This is it” went on sale, people were willing to spend thousands of dollars to see the performance because the finality brought forth and urgency which the advertisers used to increase ticket prices. Aristotle would have definitely frowned upon these devious, yet profitable practices.

Is there a way for Aristotle’s definition of happiness and advertising to coexist? The answer is yes. The key lies in the inclusion of logos (reason) and pathos (emotion) which are two principles discussed in Aristotle’s famous work entitled Rhetoric. Aristotle would agree that emotion is an imperative part of advertising. In order for a consumer to purchase a product they have to have a desire to want whatever is being advertised. However, they must have a sound reason beyond this emotion in order to make a purchase that will evoke true happiness.  Therefore, advertisers and consumers must learn to justify emotion with reason.

So how much are you really willing to spend on happiness? The answer is your entire life. When you look back at the end of your life, your happiness will not be defined by the car you drove, by the face creams you used, or by the type of peanut butter you purchased. It will be much more than that. It will be a life in which you practiced virtues, worked hard, contemplated often, and made intelligent decisions. The fleeting moments of happiness that advertisers offer will come and go; however, the pursuit and achievement of long-term goals will culminate into genuine, lasting happiness.  Aristotle’s theory of happiness is in conflict with advertisers desire to sell immediate happiness and our innate desire to achieve immediate gratification. Therefore, as human beings, we are challenged daily to overcome our inclination to get what we want and to get it now. Aristotle gently reminds us that the things that we cherish are the things that we have worked hard for and put great thought into.


Aristotle, and Martin Ostwald. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis [Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962. Print.


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