Progress and Happiness

Anna Barone Period 5

Progress. The word brings to mind something that every nation and person strives for. For a person to progress, they must know what their final goal is. For some, the goal is money; for others, it is relationships; and for the majority, the final goal is knowledge and experience. However, for a nation, countries are mostly defined by their economic status in the world. To progress, a nation must produce the most material things for consumption and trade. A country with the largest change in GDP over a fiscal year is said to have the most progress. The current definition of progress is essentially materialistic.

Happiness. No one person can tell you what makes a someone happy. It is not a certain product, and it is not a relationship. To me, it is a feeling, but to others, it may be a state of being. According to Aristotle, happiness is a human’s final goal. In order to fulfill s/he’s function, s/he has to live a life of reason and exercise reason and virtue [1]. Happiness is not just a fuzzy feeling one gets when they fall in love or when they buy their favorite sweater. In the end, happiness is self-sufficing, making life desirable. But humans’ need things to survive, right? One can’t live this kind of happy life when they are dying from hunger and thirst. So, Aristotle describes a life of virtue. “Virtue, then, is a habit or trained faculty of choice, the characteristics of which lies in moderation or observance of the mean relatively to the persons concerned, as determined by reason. [2]” A person living a happy life should do everything that lies in between excess and deficiency. In summary, happiness means choosing the mean and exercising reason and virtue.

So what would happen in an economy with the materialistic definition of progress if every consumer and producer was truly happy, in the terms of Aristotle?  Would it be possible for a nation to progress if every consumer was living a life of virtue and moderation?

Something we need to look at before deciding the answers to the questions above is what Aristotle believes to be necessary possessions. Aristotle states:

“Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide such things necessary to life, and useful to the community of the family…They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited. [3]”

If we think about a life of choosing the mean and having true riches, a person would buy exactly what s/he need. S/he may buy more material things than necessary to survive, but s/he would not indulge in a Ferrari if s/he could buy a Honda Prius. And, s/he would only buy this object if it leads to the life of reason, which is the final good—also known as happiness. An economy with truly happy consumers would look quite different than our current economy. Presently, there are entire industries that are based on indulgences. The make-up industry and the toy industry aim to please an unhappy or bored person. “According to the latest market research from Lucintel, rising consumer incomes and changing lifestyles are driving the global beauty care products industry, which is forecasted to reach around 265 billion dollars by 2017. [4]” Without these industries, the economy’s GDP would not be as high as it is currently. There would be fewer products in circulation because there would be no need for them. If you look at the original definition I gave, this economy would not progress as much as the current one. The economy’s progress depends on excess and not on happiness.

So, it seems like we may have reached a consensus. However, if you go back and look at our definition of happiness, it seems half of the definition was disregarded to answer the question. Yes, choosing the mean causes the economy to progress less than originally stated, but what about “living a life of reason in accordance with virtue and reason? [5]” By ignoring this part of happiness, it makes humans look like they are truly happy while not aspiring to anything. Does it make sense to choose the mean if it meant living in a grass hut versus living in a small house that is suitable with indoor plumbing? Also, what if humans were happy farming with hoes and pickaxes? These people seem to be ignoring their reason. Also, we need to change our definition of progress. By aiming only for GDP, the definition turns humans into machines; humans aspire for something.

Karl Marx looked into what an economy would look life if the division of labor created class struggles. He questioned what would happen if the humans turned into machines and we only focused on the profits and products. Marx believes class struggles have been the defining moments and history and are what history consists of. In the capitalist system, the one in power own capital and are making profit off of the division of labor. They aim for the cheapest labor and to increase profits to stay at the top, which in turn devalues the worker by making them, basically, machines. Marx states that “[the bourgeoisie] has resolved personal worth into exchange value.” In this economy, the proletariat will not be able to use their reason because they are dehumanized. By focusing on the profit, the bourgeoisie creates a powder keg of unhappy workers, which will eventually rebel [6].

As we look at what dehumanizing the majority causes, we can see that this type of progress should not be placed as the goal. If we focus solely on progress in terms of GDP, the society turns into machines, and all consumers and producers are unhappy. In addition, we should not place too much importance on the labor as a way to progress. “Human labor is not an end, but a means. [7]” For example, a physician who is happy in terms of labor would mean that he is employed. By him being employed, this means that many people are sick. The physician would technically be happy because he is improving his methods, offering more service, and getting more profit, but he would be putting too much emphasis on his labor. However, if we try to redefine progress, we must look at our definition of happiness as well.

Our new definitions:

Happiness means choosing the mean (not excess and not deficiency), living the life of reason in accordance with virtue, and having true riches.

Now, progress means improving or making the lifestyles of citizens in a state better.

An economy with truly happy consumers and producers would look close to our current economy. Although the consumers would not be indulging in makeup or toys (because there is no need for them), the citizens would still be producing more. They would be using their reason in order to choose the best alternative. This choice would have the smallest opportunity cost. For example, the farmer in the example above would use his reason and choose not to farm with a pickax if he had a better alternative. The more advanced tool would make his life easier and would most likely improve his lifestyle. Also, by choosing the better tool, the farmer can progress. If he was solely farming with the pickax for the rest of his life, he would produce the same amount of products. However, by using his reason, he can learn to improve his tools and to produce more while making his work easier. In addition, this farmer could have aspiration—to live a better life and to make work simpler while using his reason in accordance with virtue.

Overall, we have established that an economy’s progress, in terms of GDP, mostly depends on unhappiness. If people want to indulge, they go and buy products. If they do not use their reason, they will buy an unreasonable amount of products. However, progress, in terms of improving, depends on the citizens’ happiness. Citizens can improve their lifestyle if they are able to use their reason in order to choose the mean.

[1] Aristotle. “The Nicomachean Ethics.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. ed. Bernardo Aparicio. Accessed 2015.

[2] Aristotle.

[3] Aristotle

[4] Yeomans, Michelle. “Global beauty market to reach $265 billion in 2017 due to an increase in GDP.” Cosmetics USA. 2012. Accessed December, 7, 2015.

[5] Aristotle

[6] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. 1948. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[7] Bastiat, Frederic. “Obstacle & Cause.” Selections from Economics Sophisms. In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[8] “Work Propaganda Poster.” Happy Worker Inc. 2015. Accessed December 7, 2015.


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