Happiness: Then and Now

Hailey Lawrence- Summer Economics (Mr. Aparicio)- Honorbound

In 2012, the United Nations created a list of the most and least happy countries in the world.  One hundred and fifty six countries were chosen for analysis and evaluated (based partly on available statistics and partly on interviews with samples from the population) in order to draw a conclusion about the world’s happiest countries. This daunting task was made even more so by the fact that despite 2000 years of western philosophical thought on the subject, a universally accepted definition for “happiness” seems elusive; what makes for a happy life for one person is not necessarily what makes it for another. Nevertheless, the UN set about choosing six components which, when combined in a given country, provide its citizens (according to the UN) with a certain level of overall happiness. These components are as follows: monetary wealth, social support, generosity, freedom to make life choices, perception of corruption, and healthy life expectancy at birth[1]. Their exact definitions in the study will be elaborated on below and they will be compared with components that others (from Aristotle to Dr. Seuss) have used.

In the UN study, each country received a score between one and ten (ten being the happiest) based on the six components.  The countries were then ordered in a list from most to least happy. At the top of the list, not surprisingly, were very developed countries, which have been at peace in the world for several generations; Denmark, Switzerland, and Canada were among the top ten.  Also not surprisingly, at the bottom of the list were poorer, less developed countries (many of which have been racked by recent and often savage wars); Syria, Rwanda, and Togo for example.  However, some unexpected countries did very well.  Israel, for example, came in at number eleven, even beating the United States.

What would Aristotle have thought of this list? After his initial consternation at the sphere number of countries in the world his interest probably would have turned from the list to the UN definition of happiness based on the six components used to compile the list. Aristotle thought a great deal about what makes people happy and how we can attain happiness.  He created his own definition with his own components necessary to finding happiness.  His components, although phrased differently, are similar to those of the United Nations in many ways.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers his personal definition of happiness.  To Aristotle, happiness is not just a feeling; happiness is a state which can be attained by living a life in which we carry out our function, grow in virtue, that is “to live well or to do well is the same as to be happy” and exercise our reason.  The contemplative life is the most direct path to reaching the end goal, happiness.  Lacking any of these factors will make happiness unattainable for that individual.  Aristotle does not place great value on material wealth or sensory pleasures. However, he does acknowledge the need for some amount of money in order to be happy: “wealth…. is merely useful as a means to something else” and further “…nevertheless, happiness plainly requires external goods.”  When the UN created their components, the way they factored in monetary wealth would have pleased Aristotle.  They looked not at the wealth per capita in its raw form, but considered only the logarithm of the GDP per capita.  This means that as wealth increases to excess, it only raises the happiness rating by a small amount[2].  Thus, while wealth is a component of happiness, excessive wealth is greatly discounted.  Aristotle consigned happiness derived from wealth to a lower level than happiness derived from “the exercise of virtue”.

The second component considered by the UN, social support, was evaluated with a survey of citizens[3]. As a very political person, Aristotle believed it proper for government to be involved in supporting and enhancing people’s lives. In The Politics, he says, “He who is without a state….is a tribe less, lawless, heartless one.”  But this piece of the UN study looks at the people’s perception of reactions of friends and family in a crisis situation.  Countries where citizens felt that, in a time of need, friends and family would be ready and willing to help in any way possible scored higher on the happiness scale[4].  This feeling of security and support from loved ones is important in society today, but Aristotle did not place as much value on it as we do today.  Aristotle discusses the contemplative life and explains that this is the best way to attain happiness.  He does not put a lot of value into social support as a component of happiness and does not appear to consider this a necessity.  According to Aristotle, happiness is internal and therefore unconcerned with the actions of others.  He states, “Through nobility and greatness of soul…. Then no happy man will become miserable.”  Happiness comes from living out our function to the best of our ability, not from others around us, which is a contrasting opinion to our society.  Today we often follow the phrase, “it takes a village”, meaning we need the help of those around us in difficult times, but Aristotle saw only internal abilities, rather than the help of others, to lead to happiness.  In this way the UN and Aristotle have a contrasting opinion of happiness and the components necessary to achieve it.

Although Aristotle seems to discount leaning on others for support as necessary for happiness, he greatly valued the reverse.  Of friendship, he places the most importance on what he calls the “friendship of virtue.”  This relationship is more than one to obtain something desired from the other, or seeking friendship for the sole purpose of enjoying the other’s company, it is friendship based on generosity and helps us to grow in virtue.  From this type of relationship, we are able to attain happiness by being nice to the other.  Aristotle places this above nearly everything else when considering how to find happiness because growth in virtue he values very highly.  The UN also values this type of friendship in the generosity component.  This piece measures the amount of money donated to charitable causes and not-for-profit organizations[5].  The generosity of the people in a country is considered by the UN (as well as by Aristotle) to be an important factor in evaluating overall happiness.

The fourth component considered by the UN was freedom to make life choices.  This was calculated with a survey in which people were asked how free they felt in various aspects of their life.  These life choices might include education, voting rights, and marriage among many others[6].  Having the freedom to make life choices implies an absence of oppression.  Aristotle would have greatly appreciated this component. Two major parts of happiness from Aristotle’s point of view are exercising reason and living out our function.  Freedom to make life choices requires both.  In order to make appropriate choices, we must exercise our reason, and then we must be allowed (free from oppression) to live out our function.  For both the UN and Aristotle, this freedom to make choices in the absence of oppression is important to achieving happiness.

By interviewing citizens of the various countries the UN assessed their perception of corruption in government and business. The perception that corruption exists detracts greatly, according to the UN from the overall sense of happiness[7]. Aristotle believed that it was not sufficient simply to think nobly. He says, “A man is not good at all unless he takes pleasure in noble deeds.”  While corruption may not be able to prevent noble thoughts, it can thwart one’s ability to act on those thoughts and achieve good things.

Finally, healthy life expectancy was considered when determining the overall happiness of each country[8].  Aristotle considered a long life to be very important stating that, “A happy man is one who exercises his faculty…. Not for any chance time, but for a full term of years.”  The UN looked at this slightly differently.  They considered that a healthy person is happier than a sick person and a country where a majority of the population dies young could not be happy[9].  While their reasoning varies slightly, both the UN and Aristotle would consider healthy life expectancy to be an important component when measuring happiness.

So, most of these six components can be, at least generally, agreed upon by people in the modern and ancient world. In particular there are components that many of us place on a lower level (such as wealth) and others that we hold in higher regard (noble contemplation, generosity and doing good in the world).  But there seems to be something missing.  Neither the United Nations nor Aristotle addresses faith in God’s love as a component of happiness.  In her memoir of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Left to Tell, Immaculée Ilibagiza’s describes how her faith was what helped her find happiness despite the horrible events.  She spent months crammed in a small bathroom with several other women, unsure if she would see her family again or if she would survive the genocide, but she remained happy because she knew God loved her and would protect her.  Even after the genocide when she knew she had nothing left, none of the UN’s components, she still found happiness through her faith in God’s love, something no one could take away[10].

Today we value happiness above most other things.  We feel it is so important that we start teaching it to our children at a very early age.  In Dr. Seuss’s, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch comes into Who-ville to steal Christmas from the Who’s.  He takes the dinner, the presents, and even the Christmas tree, but when the Who’s wake up on Christmas morning, they are still happy and joyful.  “’It came without ribbons! It came without tags!’ ‘It came without packages, boxes or bags!’ ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.’‘Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”[11].  This is because happiness (Christmas in this case) does not come from material things.  This is instilled in us as young children but ultimately, it is up to each person to decide what happiness means to them.  So, what does happiness mean to you?


[1] World Happiness Report 2013 (2013) 19-21

[2] IBID.

[3] IBID.

[4] IBID.

[5] IBID.

[6] IBID.

[7] IBID.

[8] IBID.

[9] IBID

[10] Immaculée Ilibagiza and Steve Erwin, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Carlsbad: Hay House, 2006)

[11] Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (New York: Random House, 1985)


Works Cited:

Happiness: Blowing Bubbles. N.d. Huffington Post UK. Web. 26 June 2014.

Ilibagiza, Immaculée, and Steve Erwin.Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House, Inc., 2006. Print.

 How the Grinch stole Christmas. New York: Random House, 1985. Print.

“World Happiness Report 2013.” United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. United nations, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014. <http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf>


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