Snow falls, sleigh bells ring, the smell of peppermint is in the air, and millions of Americans are hosting their annual holiday parties. Yes, with just two weeks left until Christmas, the holiday season is in full swing. Billions of people around the world are rushing around from store to store on a quest find the perfect gifts for their loved ones. You know your dad wants an iPad. Your brother wants a new X-Box game. Your mom wants a new watch. You know exactly what to get for everyone on your list… Except those friends that seems to have everything. What could be the point of even giving them a gift when they have everything? Their life is perfect. They’re completely happy, right?
Let’s think about it like this: Why do we even give each other gifts in the first place? Is it to remember the birth of Jesus Christ? Sure. Is it to make the person who receives the gift happy? Sure! But be honest with yourself: if that were completely true, would you even buy a gift for some relatives that you can’t stand? And if Christmas is truly the season of giving, why not just donate to a local charity (the people who really need it)? Why do we feel so obligated to give gifts to people we know? Could it be that we have been conditioned into thinking that Christmas is more about receiving than giving?
So why give gifts at any time other than Christmas? Most people would say that their gift would make the recipient happy. Their lives would be better with this gift because they “need” it. But the fact of the matter is that your gift will not make that person happier. Why not? To answer this question, we must first look to define happiness.
To the average Joe, happiness is a life filled with luxury. If you asked a guy off the street to define happiness in terms of a long term state of being, he might say that it’s living the American dream. If you asked him to elaborate, he would most likely say that it’s a life filled with friends and family among other things like more money than he needs, a nice house, a beautiful car, and other luxuries. What most people fail to realize is that our true happiness is not based on how much money or how many things you have.
Some people say that happiness depends on the decisions we have the ability to make. Psychologist Dan Gilbert said in a talk about the psychology of happiness “We have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Why do we have that belief? Well it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it?” In other words, we only do things to get what we want. However, this statement is not restricted to material things. This is logic makes sense to most people, but is there truth behind it? Gilbert gives many examples of people who had seemingly failed in some major aspect of their life (like a paraplegic and someone who missed out on the chance to be rich), and yet they all claim to be happy. He argues that you find a way to be happy with what you have, and that freedom fuels our discontent. He reads a long quote from Adam Smith, and concluded that while preferences and choices are necessary, we are often the only things standing in the way of our own happiness. He leaves the audience with: “The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing…”
Let’s jump ahead to what the greatest of the great said, shall we? Aristotle himself has a theory on happiness and furthermore the meaning of life. We can start by establishing how we, as humans, are so unique. What is the point of human life? If you said to be successful in your life, how so? If you mean that the purpose of life is to do your job well, you are wrong. Man has no assigned job at birth, and surely we all have different jobs, so this statement is not common to all men. If you said to grow and reproduce, you are wrong. If this were so, we would be no different from a plant. We are different from plants because we have senses and perform actions, right? True, but that doesn’t make us unique creatures. Having senses still doesn’t make us any more special than animals. What makes us unique as humans, according to Aristotle, is our ability to act and think with reason. Because of this, he says that man’s purpose, or function, must therefore “is exercise of his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason”. To Aristotle, happiness is our final end. He argues that every single action each person makes is to achieve it. Think about it: You might say that you work to make money, but you need money to buy the things you need or want. He makes the point that we do not ever choose happiness for the sake of something else; happiness is the end goal, the final end. How do you reach the end goal, then? Happiness is achieving your full potential, and living life with reason. He says that to live with reason is to live the contemplative life. Does this mean just thinking all the time? And if so, about what? Aristotle defines the contemplative life not as just sitting on a rock thinking all the time, but rather as living with virtue, which he defines as a habit as choosing the mean. Put simply, the contemplative life is a life in which individuals live with just what they need to get by. Some philosophers have linked this to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Don’t we need material things for survival? This is true, and materialism is still bad. However, Aristotle isn’t saying that you shouldn’t own anything and live in a cave by yourself and think all the time. He says that should only live with true riches, which are the material things that allow you to live the life of contemplation. These are things like food and a house. Too many things, he says, impedes you from the life of contemplation by introducing distractions.
Even further, others might say that happiness is rooted in God. In the Catholic Church, there is a word, Beatitudo, which means perfect happiness, which is mainly associated with contemplation of God. This directly leads to happiness. Sound familiar? It should. This is almost exactly in line with what Aristotle said! However, Catholic doctrine takes it a step further and says that this contemplation will lead to happiness in the next life as Beatitudo is only attained in the next life.
Clearly, happiness does not have just one definition. It can be as simple as accumulating items, or as involved as Aristotle’s explanation. Each of us have the power to choose how deeply we consider our own happiness. To me, happiness – in terms that actually matter – is not an emotion. The final end is not to feel something, but to be something. So if you want my advice, this Christmas, if you’re having trouble thinking of the perfect gift for your friend that has everything, do yourself a favor and don’t give him anything. He’ll be much happier without it.
“A Christmas Gift.” Free Stock Photo HD. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?large=1>.
“Dan Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness.” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html>.
Maher, Michael. “Happiness.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 12 Dec. 2013<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07131b.htm>.