Happiness: What it is and How to Achieve it

Paige Alexander

When asked what I want from life, I, along with millions of other Americans, want to be happy. This ideal of happiness seems to be one of the most sought after in the US. Almost everyone wants it, but according to one study done in 2013, only one in three Americans are very happy.[1] Before understanding why Americans are reporting such low levels of happiness, one must consider if everyone should follow the same path to achieve happiness.

Some might claim that because everyone is different and unique, there should be many different paths to happiness. However, if this thought process is continued, it can be argued that if all people’s ideas and paths to happiness are different, than happiness cannot be defined, and is thus meaningless. On the other hand, if there is only one way to achieve happiness, it does not seem to account for the clear fact that people have different passions and personalities. Fortunately, there is an in between, and it seems to be the only way to achieve ultimate happiness. It is through the habituation of virtues. This theory accounts for the many different personalities and characteristics in the world because of the multitude of virtues that exist. For example, some may find happiness through habitual generosity, while others may find happiness through habitual courage. Although different people may practice different virtues, ultimately, happiness can only be obtained through the continued practice, and eventual habituation, of good values.

American society was formed when people began migrating in 1608 from England. As time passed and America became a safer and more reliable option, more and more people came across the Atlantic from all over Europe. During the 17th and 18th century, Europe went through the Neoclassic period then the Romantic period, respectively. Essentially, people were coming from societies that ranged widely in beliefs and societal norms. The Neoclassical period and the Enlightenment shared similar ideals: most importantly believing that societies’ overall happiness and success was more important than an individual’s happiness.[2] Romanticism, on the other hand, strongly supported complete freedom for people to find happiness in whatever individual and unique way suited them.[3] As people migrated from both eras and began to exchange ideas, it set the foundation for American society, and its views on happiness. Although both ideas were brought over, our society seems much more inclined to individual happiness, rather than the happiness of the society as a whole.

American culture seems to define happiness as an emotion, and often times encourages individuals to find it through success.[4] In different stages of life, success can have different meanings. For example, in the life of most American teenagers, happiness is attached to grades, popularity on social media, and how their peers view them. However, this can be a very dangerous mindset to have because when, for example, I experience the emotion of happiness when I earn a 100 on a test, that means that on the next test when I receive an 80 I will feel unhappy. Additionally, other emotions seem to be linked to one’s happiness level. Such emotions include, but are not limited to, self-worth, positivity, and motivation. From what I have experienced, as happiness decreases, it brings the traits listed above down as well, and makes it increasingly difficult to bring the level of happiness back up. The same is true for adults with jobs, relationships, and material wealth. Even if someone loses their job, that does not mean that their happiness should decrease. It is the virtues one practices in times of hardship, and success, that determine true happiness. Moreover, pain, failure, and disappointment are just some of the inevitable negative emotions people will encounter throughout life, and viewing happiness as an emotion will leave people defenseless to the difficulties that life guarantees. By approaching the idea of happiness as an individualistic emotion, American society fundamentally differs with Aristotle’s belief of happiness, which he regards as the ultimate goal of life. It comes down to the fact that most Americans have a harder time trying to find true happiness because of the definition and beliefs regarding happiness that American society supports, and even encourages.

Aristotle first argued that happiness can only be achieved through the habituation of virtues in his well known and widely respected Nicomachean Ethics. He argued that because the end of something is the good or the purpose, than a human’s purpose must be our function, and our good or our end goal must be happiness. This conclusion was reached because happiness is not a means to anything else, and so it must be our final destination. Thus, in Aristotle’s eyes, if we know our function, we can achieve happiness. Keep in mind, however, Aristotle believes happiness to be a state that is reached, rather than a fleeting emotion. He goes on to assert that our function is to use reason and to live the contemplative life. Aristotle then defines virtue as the habit of choosing the mean, and asserts that it is the key to living life according to reason. After understanding the main points of Nicomachean Ethics, it can be argued that many of Aristotle’s beliefs regarding happiness are supported by the majority of religions and cultures all across the world.

There are many different beliefs regarding happiness that vary depending on location, religion, and culture, but Aristotle’s definition of happiness is a common thread throughout them all. For example, Buddhism teaches that Nirvana can be attained through daily meditation. Coincidentally, happiness comes with this state of mind, and happens when living a habitually good life. Buddhist followers practice meditation, compassion, mindfulness, among others, every day;[5] these daily practices can also be looked at as a habituation of virtues. Buddhists might not call this a habituation of virtues, but the idea is the same. Both practice good values repeatedly to achieve their end goal, and in both cases this will lead to happiness. Whether or not happiness is the designated end goal or just an off shoot that naturally comes with the end goal does not matter. Either way people are achieving happiness through a habituation of virtues. This can also be seen in Hinduism, which believes that everything in the world is made from a part of God, and the ultimate goal is to achieve moksha or “liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.”[6]  In order to achieve their happiness, or end goal, Hindu’s habitually practice things like yoga, prayer, and meditation. Similar to Buddhists, Hindus repeatedly practice actions and values that they believe will lead them to ultimate happiness. Even Catholics have an end goal: heaven, where happiness is abundant and never ending. The religion also includes virtues, summarized in the 10 commandments, which worshippers should employ to achieve this final destination. All these religions encourage the daily practice of virtues in order to achieve happiness. Because many of these religions were actually created before Aristotle lived, it seems this thought pattern is a common thread through our history.

Aristotle argues that people should habitually practice virtue in order to achieve happiness at the end of their life. It does not matter what virtues are habituated because people are unique and come from different cultures and societies where different things are considered to be virtuous. American society, however, does not line up with Aristotle’s version of happiness. We tend to view it as an emotion which will come and go, but it depends solely on an individual’s success or failure in different aspects of life. These aspects include family, work, social status, friendships, among others. Unfortunately, I believe the American view of happiness is fundamentally flawed, and just like many other things, happiness must be worked for. Over a lifetime, people must practice virtue in every aspect of life in order to attain true happiness. This is proved by the numerous religions who also instill this belief in many of their core values, as well as Aristotle’s sound logic in Nicomachean Ethics.

 

[1] Carolyn Gregiore, “Happiness Index,” Huffington Post, Jun 5, 2013, Apr. 12, 2016.

[2] “Neoclassical Era,” The Age, Apr. 12, 2016.

[3] “The Romantic Era,” Mtholyoke Education, 10 May 1999, Apr. 12, 2016.

[4] Carolyn Gregiore, “How Happiness Became A Cultural Obsession,” Huffington Post, Apr 8, 2014, Apr. 12, 2016.

[5] “Buddha,” Pursuit of Happiness, 2016, Apr. 12, 2016.

[6] Patrick Olivelle, “Moksha,” Britannica, 2007, Apr. 12, 2016.

 

 

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