According to Aristotle, Would Canada Be Considered Happy?

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Nicole Wolf/ Aparicio

When you think about the happiest country in the world does America cross your mind? Well if it does, forget about it. The United Nations put together a survey of about 156 nations to determine which of them are the happiest in the world. America is only ranked seventeenth in that survey. When I tell you that Denmark is actually the happiest country in the world according to the Gallup World Poll does that surprise you? It definitely surprised me! People think of money when they think of happiness, but that’s not always the case. You would assume that America has more money than Denmark but yet Denmark is happier than America according to this poll. How the survey worked was they interviewed people from every country involved and asked them to rate their happiness on a scale from 0 to 10, 10 being the happiest. They then combine every person’s response to get an average happiness level for that country. There are six key factors that explain the differences between the people of the surveyed countries and are being taken into consideration when ranking each country. They include: real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.[1] Income can be a factor but how high or low a person’s income is does not necessarily make them more or less happy.

But before I get too far into the survey, let’s talk about happiness.What really defines a person’s happiness?

Happiness is a fickle thing. People have been trying to define it for years. No one can come up with a definition that every person in the world can agree on. The dictionary today defines happiness as “enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction, or joy.”[2] But people like Aristotle and John Mill have been debating which of their definitions the most accurate depiction of true happiness is. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines happiness as living your life in accordance with reason and by living a contemplative life. But in Utilitarianism, Mill describes happiness as “an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” Both have some truth to each definition but it’s up to the interpreter to determine which one they believe.

Imagine this scenario: You are a monk and you devote your entire life to meditation. The only thing you do all day is contemplate life and meditate. Would you consider yourself (as a monk) happy? According to Aristotle you would be. Aristotle believes that man has an end goal or a function in life. He says “the function of man, then, is exercise of his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason.” This monk is fulfilling his function because the function or job of a monk is precisely to meditate. So by Aristotle’s definition of happiness, a monk is one of the happiest people on the earth.

So now imagine this scenario: someone tells you that you can tan for as long as you want without any health risks. Sounds like a gift right? Well that’s because it is not possible. Tanning for too long or too often can cause major health risks. But tanning is pleasurable so it must be good for you? Wrong, at least according to Aristotle. He argues that some things that bring pleasure are not necessarily good because it can cause you harm. John Mill disagrees with Aristotle in his book Utilitarianism. Mills describes happiness as “intended pleasure, and the absence of pain.” When you tan, you most likely enjoy yourself and there’s nothing wrong with that according to Mill’s definition of happiness. But Aristotle would say that pleasure is just a feeling, not true happiness.

Mills also argues that people should do whatever they think will bring the most happiness to the most amount of people. An example of this would be the atomic bomb. Most people would see dropping an atomic bomb unethical because of how many enemy people would be killed. But Mills would be for an atomic bomb if it helped end a war and minimize the amount of American casualties. Mills thinks that in order to reach true happiness you must think of the community’s happiness ultimately instead of your own happiness. But technically you should reach happiness if the rest of your community is happy as well.

I agree with some parts of what Aristotle says and with some parts of what Mills says. Neither of them is entirely correct or entirely wrong. It’s up to the reader to determine which one they think is right.

Ok so why is the definition of happiness relevant? The survey! I want to look at what makes one country happier than the other and what would Aristotle or Mills have to say about it. The main countries I want to focus on are America and Canada.

When Americans talk about Canadians it usually has something to do with the stereotype that all Canadians are constantly happy. But think about it. America and Canada are neighbors when it comes to location and since Canada is so close to us, why are we not just as happy as Canadians?

First let’s look at what qualifications that allows Canada to be ranked sixth happiest country. Canada has high average income levels at about $36,000 per capita.[3] Also the average life expectancy is roughly 81 years of age where as Americans are only estimated to live to about 78 years of age.[4] Plus Canada takes the time to care for one another’s needs. They take more “time, effort and emotion investment” than other countries with weaker sense of community. According to the Huffington Post, this is not the first time that Canada has earned this title. Canadians are considered to have a higher physical activity level and being more active can lead to a “happier, healthier lifestyle that reduces obesity, heart attacks, stress and sever other medical conditions.”[5] But mental health is just as important as physical health. People with great mental health are more capable of coping with struggles that they face.

Looking at all these statistics I can’t help but wonder what America is doing wrong. I mean Canada is right above us and they are so close so why are we nine ranks away from each other? Canadians are not constantly obsessing about their government the way Americans are. Almost every article in America that you read on the news has to do with the government. Canadians are happy with their government system and that has a lot to do with reducing stress levels. Plus Americans are still bitter about the Great Recession whereas the Canadians are moving along quite nicely.

According with what Mills believed, Canada is living in true happiness. The way they are there for one another and have a strong sense of community coincides with how Mills says that happiness needs to be what is best for the majority of the society. But according to Aristotle’s belief of true happiness, the Canadians are not living a life of true happiness. This is because according to the data on why Canada is happier, the people are focusing on income to become happy. But Aristotle’s view on money is that it does not bring happiness. Also Canada is focusing too much on physical health which could get in the way of fulfilling their function. For instance, a person could become obsessed with staying in shape so they work out constantly almost to a point of unhealthiness. This luxury of working out turned from a pleasure into something that is harming that person’s body so now Aristotle would argue that they are not reaching true happiness because the thing that was good for them is now harming them.

So yes Canada is happier than America. Is there a way to turn it around for America? Of course. All we have to do is stop obsessing over the government. We will never reach true happiness doing so. Aristotle and Mills would be appalled at some things that people are doing these and considering themselves happy. But they would also approve of some of the things being practiced today.

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Navigation.” Sustainable Development Solutions Network. (accessed June 27, 2014).

[2] American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition, s.v. “happiness.” (accessed June 27, 2014).

[3] “Why Are Canadians So Happy?.” The Huffington Post. (accessed June 27, 2014).

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

 

Works Cited

“The American Heritage Dictionary entry: happiness.” American Heritage Dictionary Entry: happiness. http://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=happiness&submit.x=0&submit.y=0 (accessed June 27, 2014)

“Navigation.” Sustainable Development Solutions Network. http://unsdsn.org/resources/publications/world-happiness-report-2013/ (accessed June 27, 2014).

“Why Are Canadians So Happy?.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/cody-battershill/why-are-canadians-so-happy_b_4075109.html (accessed June 27, 2014)

Photo:

The Canadian Flag. N.d. Canada Takes Lead Role in Promotion Of Religious Freedom. Web. 27 June 2014.

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