Would Aristotle’s view of happiness have changed if he went on a mission trip to Haiti?

Taylor Teaster/Aparicio. Aristotle said “Happiness depends on ourselves.”[2] More than any thinker, he believed that happiness is the central purpose of human life and should be our end goal. He also said that happiness depends on the “cultivation of virtue”, though some of his virtues were different than what other people of that time considered to be correct.  Aristotle was convinced that a truly happy life required a wide range of conditions, including physical as well as mental well-being. Looking at this definition of happiness and applying it to our world today is sobering to say the least.  How have we strayed so far from what true happiness used to be, to end up where we are today?

In his book of Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle said “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” [2] He also says, in the same book, that “It seems that all other goods are a means towards obtaining happiness, while happiness is always an end in itself.” [2] It is easy to see that we want money and pleasure only because we think that these goods will make us happy. But then again when have we ever learned anything differently? We are taught at a young age that material things are important and (especially growing up around Highland Park) that the clothes you wear and how you look is what will determine your happiness for the rest of your life.  With these kinds of influences coming at us from every side is it really even possible to be happy in the sense that Aristotle thought was possible?

In The United States, I grew up with the notion that the happiest people were the richest.  Everyone talked about Bill Gates and how he was the “richest man in the world” and from a young age I equated that with also being the happiest man in the world.  In my mind happiness didn’t “depend on ourselves,” it depended on money.  Of course my parents always said “money can’t buy you happiness” and I would nod and agree with them but in the back of my mind I always thought that was never quite right.  My family was never wealthy but we were never left wanting for anything either (that’s not to say that I didn’t wish for shopping sprees or surprise trips to Disney world) so because money wasn’t a problem during my childhood I never saw it as a source of unhappiness it was always something that brought good things.  My parents started to realize that I thought that money could indeed buy happiness and tried to show me examples where this wasn’t the case.  Up until last year, I still didn’t quite agree with them, but then I went on a trip that changed every single view I previously had on true happiness.

When I went to Haiti with my dad’s company, Soles4Souls, for the first time on January 1st of 2013, I found out that it was possible to live out Aristotle’s definition.  While there was definitely a part of me that wanted to stay in Dallas and hang out with my friends for the last week of Christmas break, I nonetheless went off to Haiti (slightly) enthusiastically.  I went there expecting everyone to be sad and depressed due to their state of destitution but instead I was met with an overflowing abundance of joy.  We distributed shoes to so many different kinds of people it was really eye-opening.  The exuberance that came from the kids was the most shocking of all though, they came to the distribution sites with little to no clothes on (if they did have clothes they were dirty and in tatters) and yet were also wearing the biggest smiles I had ever seen in my life. After distributing the shoes we would get to stay and play with the little kids and that was when I realized just how genuinely happy all of them were.  In one place we got to give shoes as well as bags of toiletries and it was like Christmas had come early for them.  They were running around showing their friends what was in their bags and it was so crazy to me because if I was there age and I had gotten a bag of toiletries as a gift back home, I would have said “thank you” (not meaning it all” and thrown it in a corner of my room.  The difference between these reactions is what, in the long run, will  They all had so much life in them that I never expected to see and looking back on how I felt the first day compared to the last day is like looking at black and white.

The first couple of weeks after Haiti, my whole family was all fired up to make a difference and change our way of living and for a while we tried; but our lives and previous engagements caught up with us and we eventually stopped.  Not because we didn’t care but because it had never been a part of our lives leading up till that point, it was not a part of our daily routine to consciously think about what it means to truly be happy and think about how the kids we met in Haiti were happier with almost nothing, than we are with almost everything.  People in America have become so used to getting what they want when they want it that we have, as a society, become indifferent to the people in our lives and have stopped focusing on what it means to be truly, not artificially, happy.  Americans are good at being artificially happy and we are very good at using money to essentially buy what we think will make up happy in the long run.  Money is a huge part of our lives from when we are little kids saving our Christmas money to buy a toy that we think will make us happy, till we are adults in the real world (not that I know much about this since I’m still in high school) trying to “get rich” and “make it big” [4] and lead what we call “the good life” [2] but is our version of that “good life” the right one?

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One of the ways that Americans have come around to this way of life is by automatically thinking that the people in third world countries are devastatingly unhappy but if we actually took the time and payed attention to the people in these countries we would find that this is definitely not the case. [1]  A lot of people say that the people that don’t have as much, are usually happier because they don’t always want something and they are content with what they have but is this true? It might actually be.  How can you be found wanting if there isn’t anything to want? I’m not saying that the people in Haiti that are living in tent cities are happy because they don’t know any better but maybe they are happy because they do.  They realize that their situations could be better and they could have more money, but they also realize that in the long run their material goods will not be the most important thing to look back on after they are gone.

Happiness is a tricky thing it’s hard to know what “true happiness” is or what the real “good life” is, we can only guess.  Aristotle came closer than most to finding out what that word really means and how to live it out in our everyday life, but in today’s society we have gone far off of the path that Aristotle trod. [3]  When I say “today’s society” I mean the world I live in, because while my world in America may not be living up to Aristotle’s way, places such as Haiti are definitely on their way.

Footnotes:

1. Pursuit of Happiness

2. Nichomachean Ethics

3. Notes on Nichomachean Ethics

4. Stanford

Works Cited

Holzer, Allison. “Aristotle.” Pursuit of Happiness. http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/ (accessed June 22, 2014).

Freddo, A. “Notes on Nichomachean ethics.” Notes on Nichomacean Ethics. http://www.3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/180/nichomach.htm (accessed June 24, 2014).

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle Ethics.” Stanford University. http:// plato.stanford.edu/entries/artistotle-ethics/ (accessed June 23, 2014).

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