What is Happiness?

Sydney Harned

period 7


“Happiness” is a concept that many people are familiar with. We are constantly seeking happiness in our day-to-day lives; it seems as though every action relates back to our desire to be happy. Some seek happiness by doing good or helping people, while others seek happiness through short-term pleasure, such as shopping, taking a bubble bath or eating chocolate cake.  Happiness may be found in the laughter of a child, or the comfort of being surrounded by family. People find happiness in different places, although ultimately everyone is trying to achieve the same feeling of true contentment. What is happiness? Many people have different definitions and ideas of happiness; it has been defined and redefined for centuries. Two of the most notable concepts regarding happiness were written by John Stuart Mill, in relation to his study of Utilitarianism, and Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics. Although the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Aristotle regarding happiness have many evident similarities and differences, both works are widely accepted and debated; neither work, however, can truly define the meaning of pure happiness.  

            Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s best known work relating to the topic of ethics. The basis of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics is that “every kind of inquiry… seems to aim at some good (Aristotle 1).” Every action performed by humans ultimately relates back to the final end we are working towards, “the Good.” But what is the Good? Aristotle argues that, although everyone can agree that the final good is happiness, people cannot agree on what happiness constitutes. Most people tend to confuse happiness with pleasure; he believes this to be the reason that many men “aim at nothing higher than the life of enjoyment” (Aristotle 4). Aristotle does not believe that pleasure is the good we are seeking; if it were, we would be equated with animals. So, if pleasure is not the Good, what is? We consider someone “good” when they perform their function well. A chef who prepares appetizing meals is a “good” chef. An artist who produces appealing works of art is a “good” artist. A soccer player who scores lots of goals is a “good” athlete. Therefore, the Good is the ability to perform our function; the ability to fulfill our function is, according to Aristotle, true happiness, the final end, and the deciding factor that separates us from animals.

            John Stuart Mill has been referred to as one of the most influential English-speaking philosophers of the nineteenth century. His work Utilitarianism was based off the theory developed by Jeremy Bentham, which focuses on the idea that actions are right if they benefit the majority. In “Utilitarianism,” John Stuart Mill states that “happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain” (Mill 1), while unhappiness is “pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mill 1). Mill believes that actions are right if they promote happiness, while actions are wrong if they produce the reverse of happiness; he calls this the “Greatest Happiness Principle.” Additionally, if one is faced with multiple choices, the action that results in the most pleasure is considered by utilitarians the correct choice. Mill believes that there are different degrees of pleasure, but pleasures rooted in our “higher faculties” are held to a higher standard than simpler pleasures. A “higher pleasure” can be defined as a pleasure that the majority would choose over a different pleasure, even if it is accompanied by some amount of displeasure. When given a choice, humans will choose pleasures that appeal to their higher faculties; Mill claims that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” (Mill 3). According to Mill, the possession of “noble character” will cause the individual to experience less happiness; however, this noble character will benefit society as a whole. Therefore, even if noble character is not desirable for the individual, it is desirable for the greater good by a Utilitarian principle. John Stuart Mill believes that happiness is something that promotes pleasure, especially when it is rooted in our higher faculties.

            John Stuart Mill and Aristotle’s works have many parallels; many of their beliefs about happiness coincide with each other. John Stuart Mill and Aristotle both claim in their works that their definitions of happiness, although the definitions differ, are the ultimate end. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that all men agree that “The highest of all realizable goods” is “happiness”(Aristotle 2);  in Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill states that “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends” (Utilitarianism 1). Both authors believe, through Aristotle’s statement that the highest good is happiness and Mill’s idea that pleasure is the final end that man desires, that man spends his life working towards achieving true happiness.  In addition, both John Stuart Mill and Aristotle believe that, as humans, one’s happiness is experienced in a way that is more complex than experienced by animals. John Stuart Mill states that “a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness” (Mill 2) while Aristotle believes that a life of sense is not the function of man, because man “too plainly shares [this] with horses and cattle and all kinds of animals”; instead, the function of man is action, which can be divided into “obeying reason” and “having and exercising reason” (Aristotle 6). Through John Stuart Mill’s idea that humans beings’ higher faculties cause a human being to experience a more complex happiness accompanied by Aristotle’s idea that humans have a higher function than animals consisting of rational action, one can infer that human happiness is unique to man; no animal has the capacity to experience the intricacy of living a truly happy life. John Stuart Mill and Aristotle’s opinions are similar in the sense that they believe man has the unique ability to practice virtues in order to achieve happiness, the final end.

            Although there are many parallels in Utilitarianism and Nichomachean Ethics, the authors have many ideas that contradict each other. Aristotle believes that happiness is achieved through exercising virtue, while Mill believes that virtues do not affect an individual man’s happiness. According to Nichomachean Ethics, “happiness is an exercise of the vital faculties in accordance with perfect virtue or excellence” (Aristotle 11), a virtue being defined as “a habit or trained faculty of choice” (Aristotle 15); being in accordance with virtue allows one to achieve The Good. In contrast, John Stuart Mill believes that “a sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, [is considered] wasted” (Mill 5). Aristotle believes that virtue brings true happiness, while John Stuart Mill believes that, if the virtue does not increase the individual’s happiness, it is worth nothing. John Stuart Mill and Aristotle also have differing ideas of what happiness really is. John Stuart Mill states that “happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain” (Mill 1); Aristotle believes that those “who are the least refined” suppose that happiness is equal to pleasure, and therefore “aim at nothing higher than the life of enjoyment,” which cannot make man truly happy (Aristotle 3). Although Aristotle and John Stuart Mill both believe happiness is the final end, Mill believes that happiness is equal to pleasure, while Aristotle believes that pleasure cannot bring man happiness. Although Aristotle and John Stuart Mill had differing ideas about a multitude of topics, both pose many questions about the true meaning of happiness.

            John Stuart Mill and Aristotle both wrote works that have been debated in classrooms, pondered by great thinkers, and discussed for many years. It is fair to say that both of these men have challenged the way that many people view happiness. However, neither of these famous works is considered to be completely true or completely false. The question, “what is happiness?” does not need to have a direct answer. Each individual perceives happiness differently and each individual must define it himself. Understanding what makes a person truly happy is his first step to achieving his final end; whether he believes it to be the greater good, or pleasure in the absence of pain.


Works Cited

“Nicomachean Ethics.” Nicomachean Ethics. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.

Wilson, Fred, Wilson,. “John Stuart Mill.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 03 Jan. 2002. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.






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