Is the idea of happiness promoted by American culture compatible with the Aristotelian view of an individual’s happiness? / What advice would Aristotle give an American teenager today on how to achieve genuine happiness without being jaded by consumer culture?
By Ashley Turner (period 1)
Teenagers are infamous for their hormones dictating their actions, rebelliousness, a mixture of passion and apathy, entitlement, and narcissism. The awkward period between the time we were children and the time we will inevitably have to become adults is a time of discovery, questions, and experimentation. We have finally shed our child-like way of thinking and have tapped into what makes us different from the person next to us. Our opinions start to flower, we try everything in the hopes of finding something we love, our varying interests clash with the values of our parents, and we do all this, ultimately, in the midst of understanding our purpose and in the hopes of answering the question of what are we going to dedicate the rest of our lives to and be happy while doing it. The question of what is our ultimate purpose is one that can be most famously traced back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where he regards happiness to be the ultimate end of our existence (“the good is the final and happiness is this,” not to be confused with only reaching happiness when dead, but rather fulfilling your function on earth, the “good,” to lead you to your final end…”for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it sis not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy”), an idea very foreign to America’s view of happiness that we, teenagers, are faced with by our parents, media, and culture.
Happiness was treated as an ice cream after soccer practice when we were seven, an iPod Nano for our 11th Christmas, a car for our 16th birthday, and a $500 high school graduation gift from our grandparents. We have been rewarded from our families, friends, and ourselves with toys and gifts of increasing value as we have climbed our way up to adulthood with the intention of creating a happier version of ourselves at that time (and very temporary state of happiness at that). Buying our way to a superficial state of happiness has been indoctrinated into how we fallaciously view happiness and has dictated how many young adults have chosen to live. The universities we have chosen to attend in the coming fall, the subjects we have checked to major in, our career plans, and long-term blueprints of our lives have been majorly influenced by the accompanying reputation, social status, and purchased pleasures that we can buy our way into with the resulting monetary rewards of our careers. The value that we place on stuff and things and random commodities that we can buy would most likely be treated as an epidemic of sorts by Aristotle if he were observing the ins and outs of how our culture functions and how we view happiness.
Aristotle had a very adequate grasp of the exact opposite of what American media and culture defines as happiness/the ultimate purpose of our lives. How we have shaped our idea of happiness has been largely supported by media and culturally-driven descriptions of happiness equating to pleasure, happiness having the potential to be a permanent state of being, happiness just simply being having fun with friends, awesome food, music, sex, owning an expensive car, living in a lavish home, etc. Reconditioned to achieve instant ‘happiness’ by buying our way into owning or experiencing these things and even more, Aristotle would respond to our distorted cycle of trying to achieve happiness in the same manner that he did in Nicomachean Ethics almost 2,300 years ago by advising the youth of today to unearth their individual functions as humans while living in accordance to reason and virtue in order to achieve their ultimate good (happiness). He clarifies in what is widely considered one of the most important historical philosophical works that an individual’s function is to “live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed, it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: If this is the case, then happiness turns our to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Unlike most mindless things we are told to do, searching for our individual functions can’t be BS-ed if we want to discover our very personal, very intimate world of happiness instead of being ruled by leeches who sedate the American public through the spectacle of mass media and conspicuous consumption.
His advice for my generation, the Millennials, to achieve the desired state of happiness as a way of life would contradict the message we have conditioned with. Monetary wealth as a crucial vehicle towards being a happy individual does not align with Aristotle’s thinking:
“As for the money-making life, it is something quite contrary to nature; and wealth evidently is not the good of which we are in search, for it is merely useful as a means to something else. So we might rather take pleasure and virtue or excellence to be ends than wealth; for they are chosen on their own account.”
Happiness is not a feeling; it is a way of life. The purpose of life is not to feel something, but to be something. Doing anything in attempt to release dopamine is a temporary and superficial means of attaining happiness; living purposefully and “exercise[ing] [our] faculties in accordance with perfect excellence, being duly furnished with external goods, not for any change time, but for a full term of years: to which perhaps we should add, and who shall continue to live so, and shall die as he lived” is how Aristotle defined happiness centuries ago and how he would point us in the same direction today.
In addition, developing our contemplative potential, Aristotle would add, would only aid us understanding ourselves and the existing world around us. What the human spirit wants and needs cannot be advertised. In a time where advertised pleasure competes with the resulting death of individual’s genuine passions, Aristotle would remind the growing youth that the fundamental ingredients for a happy life would consist of: exercising complete virtue and striving to reap as many virtues as possible, exercising reason (the moderate amount is the extreme of perfection) along with virtue, keeping an eye on the future (towards the ultimate end, where we can determine if we lived as happy individuals) in order to make right decisions in the present (not giving into the instant gratification presented left and right), feeding our intellectual appetite (Consequently, I believe he would be a strong advocate of a liberal arts education since it draws on the cultivation of the person as a whole, rather than only learning a set of skills) to realize our capacity, and understanding that happiness is not a goal or state, but rather an achievement that can only be attained until we are six feet under (and maybe there won’t be product placement at our funerals by the time this generation is dead).
Existence is just too strange to just be the species that buys things. To quote twitter user lord crunkington III (@postcrunk), “the expectation to be as ubiquitous, consistent, and accessible as the branded products we buy is slowly driving the human race insane.” Aristotle was not jaded by the difficulties ushering the human experience and if he were alive and well in 2014, his guiding tips on how to be happy already mentioned would be, in my opinion, too difficult to follow for too many people. The Aristotelian view of happiness would not go well with the sunny world of materialism and capitalism. We’ve already been tricked to buy the tangible in an effort to own the intangible. And we’ve already become too vulnerable to the wish (Higher social status? Acceptance? To reflect the lifestyle brand we have chosen?) we make when we buy the next pair of shoes, car, or degree. We’re actually pledging to the flag of the United Corporations of America and our obsession with money is restricting our human potential. And I’m pretty sure Aristotle would agree with me on that one.
Pursuit of Happiness. “Aristotle.” Accessed May 5, 2014. http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/.