Worlds Apart: Perceptions of Aristotle’s teaching of Happiness


Mary Hutti-Period 1          

  In Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, he explores happiness and its roots. In this writing he explains that it is always “for the sake of the end that all else is done”, and that this final end is happiness. Well, what is happiness, and is it the same for every person or culture? Aristotle says that “happiness is believed to be the most desirable thing in the world”, but where does that leave the human race as a whole? Each individual has separate values and would categorize “most desirable” differently. Even looking within America alone would the answer to this question become complicated, so what if the whole world was included. If happiness is the final end or good, then how do we find that, and is it really different for all cultures? Aristotle set up the basis for this question, and now it is up to us to find the answer.

            As an American it is easy to see the world through one shade of lens. Accomplished and undeveloped. Progress and lack of resources. The world becomes separated into two distinct categories. There are those countries, such as America, who have become advanced and educated and productive, and then there is the rest of the world. This is by no means a good thing, in fact it is disgusting. This example alone helps prove that the culture which surrounds people truly help shape who they are as people as well as how they see the world around them. Contrary to American society, there are places such as Uganda, a small country in the eastern part of Africa which possesses a completely different quality of life. They do most of their living outside on the streets and the sense of community is much stronger and has a greater value than in the US. It is fascinating to come from one to the other because the difference could not be more drastic. Driving down the streets of Kampala a person can wave to any passerby and receive a wave in return. Here in America, that first wave would most likely be returned by looks of confusion and skeptic. According to the UN’s 2013 World’s Happiness Report “they are the happiest people in East Africa”. It could be argued that this is a simple statistic, but I disagree. If a country has the power to make such an impact on the world it must also be making this impact on its inhabitants. This simple example helps provide a launching pad for the point that culture plays a dramatic part in shaping communities and distinguishing values.

            Now that we have defined that different cultures truly do value different things, we must ask ourselves what happiness is to these different cultures.  Aristotle explains that “man’s good lies in his function, if he has one”. In America we would say that a well-functioning person is one who receives a good education and makes something of themselves in the corporate world. But, if happiness can be answered in the function of a man then does this mean that a person who fulfills these requirements is happy? I would argue that it does not mean they are happy. People can have all the boxes checked on a list that was generated for them and still not be happy. Happiness must come from within.  Aristotle understands this and says that even though a man has a function that he fulfills, it is not the only thing that is important and “we must suppose that man has some function over and above all” of the rest.  Because the American society does not base worth on interior values, this logic is lost, leaving the quantity of one’s happiness to rely solely on one’s wealth and success. In the country of Uganda, these definitions are different. A well-functioning person is one who helps uphold the community and lives their life according to God’s will. They do not need to prove their worth in material ways, but rather by showing their family and community loyalty and dedication. The Encyclopedia of Nations explains that, with a national GDP of $332 U.S. dollars per capita in 1998, Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world. Looking around at the landscape this statistic comes to life; however, when interacting with the people, one would never know they have next to nothing to lean back on. So, is this to say that having money is being unhappy where being poor is? I do not think so, but I do think that happiness is based on the true worth of one’s values. Ugandans do not have luxury of wealth but they are still happy. On the other hand, Americans have a lot more accessibility to wealth, yet depression rates rise every year. So, if we know being happy is something different for every group of people, then what is, fundamentally, being happy?

            Aristotle’s division of goods into three classes, “external goods, goods of the soul, and goods of the body”, help provide a frame of reference for what is good, or the final end, which is happiness. I think that each good is equally as important as the next except for the good of the soul, and with this I agree with Aristotle. He says that “goods of the soul are commonly said to be goods in the fullest sense, and more good than any other”.  However, I also believe that a person needs a taste of all three in their life to be happy. Looking at these countries I see two different things in relation to the three goods listed above. First, that they each put emphasis on separate goods; America values the external goods where Uganda values goods of the soul. The second is that each has room to grow with infiltrating these goods into their society. If a country puts most of their attention on one then they must be lacking in the others, gesturing to opportunity cost, so then, are either truly happy?  I think Aristotle would argue no, that neither is fully content, which leaves us with the question of how can they become fully content? I personally believe they will not and cannot ever reach this state. One of the most beautiful aspects of life is that, as human beings, we are constantly evolving. We can never fully rest partly because we are innately designed not to, but also because the majority of our society pushes for constant change. With these influences, the individual becomes accustomed to change, and therefore seeks it constantly.  The scale of this change does not matter, what does, however, is the fact that it is ever present. Yet, does being fully content mean being happy? I don’t think it does. I think being happy is possessing all of Aristotle’s three good with the good of the soul as dominant while being fully content is simply finding peace with one’s situation at any certain time in life.

So if this is being happy, then how does one find it? The answer is complex, yet simple. The process to ultimately finding happiness, or the final end, is, as Aristotle explains, a long process of building upon events and experiences and lessons and deeds. Everything we do in life is to help us reach this final end. As humans, this includes failures and triumphs, both teaching us lessons and drawing us closer to our ultimate good. Finding happiness does not happen quickly and takes lots of dedication and hard work both from the individual as well as the community. America and Uganda are both at different stages of their happiness. Each possess qualities of being truly happy, but neither is completely there yet. Living in an imperfect world full of separate cultures and ways of life there is no possible way that happiness could mean the same for everyone. Each society has made their mark in different ways, and will simply always value one thing over another. However, this does not mean that both cannot possess the potential to be truly happy. One of the most beautiful aspects of our world is that cultures vary depending on where you go. If happiness was the same for everyone we would lose this sense of individuality. Aristotle’s definition of man’s worth and goods and finality and happiness are strong and valid. His words prove that anyone can find happiness by using the human experience as a tool for shaping their life and by appreciating the culture and diversity around them.


Works Cited:

Butagira, Tabu. “Ugandans happiest in East Africa – UN.” – National.

Encyclopedia of the Nations. “Encyclopedia of the Nations.” Uganda Poverty and wealth, Information about Poverty and wealth in Uganda.  

One thought on “Worlds Apart: Perceptions of Aristotle’s teaching of Happiness

  1. You make an interesting point about how people in different countries often have different views on what makes them happy in terms of what gives them pleasure. In America we enjoy football, for example, while in Uganda they may enjoy football/soccer; I suppose it just depends on the culture and history of the location. You could also argue that some things give people all around the world pleasure– such as friends, family, a good joke. It is interesting to hear about your trip to Uganda and what you observed while you where there!

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