What makes people happy? Is it a new toy? The latest MacBook Pro? An all-expense paid vacation? In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics he states that “happiness is believed to be the most desirable thing in the world.” As far back as 350 B.C.E. Aristotle tried to explain the meaning of happiness and how one achieves it. Even thousands of years ago, this philosopher had already grasped the meaning of such a wonderful state of being that most of us today could only define as “a good feeling” or “something that makes me happy.” He tells his readers that “happiness is attained by learning or the formation of habits” and that we must be patient in reaching this goal. But what exactly is happiness? What defines pure happiness? Are there specific criteria? Can anyone be truly happy?
We all want to achieve this so called “American Dream,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald provided a model of in his novel The Great Gatsby. The “American Dream” that he portrays is solely based on the materialistic display of wealth. At least in the eyes of Gatsby, being rich meant being happy, or so he thought. He was so preoccupied and focused on having money and being “good enough” for Daisy, that the end justified the means. With his way of making money, going from a poor person to a member of the rich society disregarded any types of moral standards. As time passed and Gatsby “earned” his money, he saw that his income was a way of interaction and a way to collect and even buy his so called friends.
In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle doesn’t necessarily say that wealth is a bad thing, but that “wealth evidently is not the good of which we are in search for.” Aristotle would not agree with Gatsby’s definition of happiness, as he sees it to be hedonistic because Gatsby’s happiness was “equated [with] sensory pleasures – to individual, personal experiences” whereas Aristotle would define happiness, “eudaimonia,” as “social in nature – it is realized by individuals but only within the context of family, friendships, community, or society” (Web Missouri).
In today’s society, materialism is all around us. However, the question remains, do these materialistic values really make us happy? Is this long term happiness, or just for the moment? They say “we seek money in order to buy things we need or like; we like the things we buy either in themselves or for another reason, e.g. because we think that they will give us status in the eyes of others; we seek status in the eyes of others because…? There must be a reason, otherwise, why bother?” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle). Nowadays, our society is all about the looks and being able to earn an abundance of wealth so that we can buy our happiness: a brand new MacBook Pro, a Louis Vuitton handbag, Christian Louboutin red bottom shoes, a luxurious vacation to the Caribbean Islands, and a private jet to top it off. However, even Aristotle has said that as attractive as these treasures may be, people will eventually become “slaves to their pleasures.” These people have turned into societies that – as Dave Ramsey says – “are spending money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”
Even one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s main characters in the Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, exclaims “self-control” is something that the wealthy lack, and have a tendency to give in to purchasing things that they do not need. This is supposedly what makes so many people strive to reach their own ideal of the modern day twenty first century “American Dream.” The down side to this philosophy of the “American Dream” is after spending so much money on little things that appeal to us for only a short period of time – fads – and then regretting the fact that something you spent so much money on at one point in time, you will never use again. For example, at awards shows, an actress may go out and buy a ten thousand dollar gown for this one event, and never wear it again. So she has spent all of that money, on a one-time ordeal. This dress now becomes a burden on her, because she is too rich and stubborn to get rid of this dress because it has “sentimental value” but now it clutters space in her home, where she will constantly have new things coming in, that she obviously doesn’t need, and then more and more space is filled. Does having all of these possessions really make a person happy? According to Aristotle, it is not acquiring material goods, but rather “happiness is a kind of activity or life” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle). It is a person who “will always make the best of his circumstances…a good shoemaker will make the best shoe that can be made out of a given piece of leather” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle). “It is by our conduct in our intercourse with other men that we become [happy] or [unhappy]” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle).
Then leaves another question: how do selfless people define happiness. These people may acquire material possessions however these items are not their primary source of happiness. They are happy because they are social in nature, and as previously mentioned, express “eudaimonia.” A happy person is one who “will always make the best of his circumstances” doing “excellent deeds” and performing selfless acts. “Happiness would seem to need but a small supply of external goods…the necessities of life” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle).
At Ursuline, those services and good deeds are called Serviam. This is our selflessness put forth into action. In his book, Ethics, Aristotle says that a happy person is “moderately supplied with the gifts of fortune, but had done the noblest deeds, and lived temperately; for a man who has but modest means may do his duty.” Serviam is what makes students of Ursuline happy. As a Catholic school, our journey to heaven is based on “deep[ening] our concern for others and turn[ing] it into meaningful action, by us[ing] our unique gifts and talents to help those in need. It’s an attitude and a spirit that will stay with [a student] for the rest of [her] life” (Ursuline Serviam Motto, website). This is what inspires our happiness and allows us to “show [God] the greatest love and reverence” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle).
Aristotle teaches us that happiness is not only how we live our lives, but the end and final result. This is known as the “final good” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle). The final end: meaning the conclusion, or the final result of all of a person’s actions. In the broadest case, death, or our final moments before passing on to heaven. Only after living a long life filled with different actions and decisions made throughout our lives are we able to refer back to what we’ve accomplished and how we’ve interacted with our family, friends, and even enemies, to determine if we really have had a “happy” life. Through sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, our ability to stay positive and see the light in everything we do demonstrates our sense of happiness. This will lead us to a better life, in heaven.
Each one of us has our own definition of what makes us happy. “[Some have said it] to be something palpable and plain, as pleasure or wealth or fame; one man holds it to be this, and another that, and often the same man is of different minds at different times, – after sickness it is health, and in poverty it is wealth…” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle). It seems that everyone’s experiences are different. Personally, I believe happiness comes and goes very quickly and very often throughout a person’s life. However, not until we have lived the full extent of our lives, do I believe that we will truly be able to say that we have lived an overall “happy” life. For example, getting an ice cream cone with my sister after a stressful week of school will make the both of us happy, but only for the moment, because we both know that the following Monday, our stressful week will begin all over again. Then our happiness diminishes for a brief period of time again. Back and forth we experience this happiness coming and going throughout our lives. In life, I have found happiness in some of the smallest things such as purely spending time with my family, be it a road trip, or vacation, or even having dinner together. However, as my life nears its end, I hope I will only be evaluated based on my selfless actions and Serviam, for this is what God will judge me on as I continue my spiritual journey. This is what makes me happy.
Barron, Kristryl. “Can money buy happiness or is the grass always greener? – AGBeat.” News : Business, Housing, Tech, Social Media, Articles – AGBeat. http://agbeat.com/finance/can-money-buy-happiness-or-is-the-grass-always-greener (accessed June 22, 2013).
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Scribner, 1996.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Greece: Aristotle, 350 B.C.E