Americans and their Selfish Happiness

Olivia Watson

In American society, values are rooted in the freedom and success that was possible when the first settlers colonized the land. Success is achieved when a person can not only support themselves, but support any kind of lifestyle they want, no matter how extravagant. In turn, happiness is achieved when a person does not have to hinder themselves from anything they want, no matter the price tag. In America, happiness is defined as the success achieved by an individual, that allows for self-sufficiency and a sense of freedom from being ruled by anyone else. If a person is not happy, it is probably because they have not worked hard enough to support themselves, and they are only feeling unhappy because they do not have enough money to not feel ruled over by anyone else. Happiness in American society is state of being solely based on the individual, and what they are able to achieve that will make them even more independent and self-sufficient.

Unlike the American view of happiness that is defined as a state of being a person can gain enough success to achieve, the Aristotelian view is that happiness is not a state of being at all. The word used in Nicomachean Ethics that is translated to the word happiness is “eudaimonia.”1 This can be misleading because today happiness is often defined as a “state of mind,” or a state if being in which you do not have worries or tough problems. But Aristotle defines happiness as a final end or goal of a person’s life. It cannot be gained or lost, and is not a simple as pleasure. Unlike pleasure, happiness is not something that can be temporary. A person can experience pleasure daily, but not experience happiness as the end of their life. Aristotle’s definition of happiness is the value of a given life, or how much a person lived up to their full potential as a human being while they were alive.2

Also according to Aristotle, a person can achieve happiness by “maintaining the mean, which is the balance between two excesses.”3 This is contrary to the American view of happiness, which is almost always the extreme of any mean. An American does not want to be self-sufficient, they want to be rich; they do not want to be successful, they want to be chief executive officer. Americans do not strive to create things, they create things that are new and innovative, and that will hopeful change the world. The desire to be over average drives people to work hard to get what they want, and do whatever they have to in order to achieve their goals. Nothing about the mindset of a United States citizen moves them to find a balance in their life, because they would rather have excess of something than just the right amount.

To Aristotle, it is impossible to say that someone has achieved happiness until the end of their life. Therefore, one cannot determine if a child is happy, because they have not yet lived a “full term.” In America, however, children are often referred to as the “happiest” people, because they have not yet experienced all of the things that make a person unhappy in an American definition. For example, a child has not yet realized that they do not have complete power in their country, or have ever had to take the time to file taxes or take on any other obligation a United States citizen has as a member of the community. American unity is an important part of the culture. But while this is true, it is an unspoken wish of everyone to be able to separate themselves from the community, and be so powerful that they can support themselves and not have to worry about the rules set within the community. With money comes power, and American people strive for the power of freedom in everything they do.4

Like the Aristotelian view of happiness, America’s view usually happens at the end of a person’s life, or at least after the person has time to achieve what he or she wants to. The United States point of view is that a person is happiest when they are young and naive, before they know about bad things in the world. Once they realize the problems, the rest of their life they work to be successful and find happiness. They find their happiness when they reach a point where they do not have to worry about problems anymore, and have returned to the state of mind they had when they were young. Once they are completely independent and do not worry about problems that do not affect them, they are in a state of happiness.

The Utilitarian view of happiness is contradictory to that of America today. A Utilitarian strives to see that the most happiness or pleasure is achieved by the most people in the society, and believes that this is what will create a happy community as a whole. Utilitarianism is the idea that the success of any society is determined by how much it maximizes happiness or pleasure for all people, or as many people as possible. Utilitarianism states that pleasure and happiness are intrinsically valuable, and that pain and suffering are intrinsically harmful to a community.5 The basis of Utilitarianism is seeing a population as a whole, rather than individually thinking about the happiness of each person. To a Utilitarian, as long as the majority of people are happy, the society does not need to worry about the happiness of an individual.

The Utilitarianism view of happiness is opposite to that of Americans. The United States culture is based around a community, and many people make sure to help their neighbors. But the majority of the people in any given community think for themselves only. They may care about the people around them, but their first and foremost responsibility is for themselves, and maybe their family and friends. It is important to live in a fairly happy community so that everything runs smoothly and people obey the laws they have, but achieving full happiness for the most people in the community is not a concern for citizens. Americans are mainly concerned for individual freedom, that will lead to their happiness in the long run, similar to the view of Aristotle. Good United States citizen who strive for happiness will obey laws and do what they can to respect their community, but still desire to be able to leave it behind and be on their own.

Aristotle says that happiness is the central purpose of human life and a goal for all people.6 For most every society, happiness is the goal of all of its citizens.7 No matter what that society defines as happiness, everyone is striving for it, and hopes to reach it at the end of their life, if they have not already achieved it. If a country defines happiness as a state of pleasure, then people can experience it frequently. But using Aristotle’s definition, a person can only reach happiness at the end of their life, similarly to the American view of happiness. Utilitarianism calls for happiness from the most people, which is a view that is very dependent on what happiness if defined as. Happiness can be defined as many different things depending on societal standards. America’s view of happiness is unrealistic under the utilitarianism viewpoint, because Americans strive to be better or set apart from their community. Depending on the definition of happiness, Aristotle’s view has more relation to the United State’s view of happiness than that of Utilitarianism.

1 Aristotle., and Terence Irwin. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett

     Pub., 1999.

2 Pursuit of Happiness Inc. “Aristotle.” The Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed May 1,


3 Pursuit of Happiness Inc. “Aristotle.” The Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed May 1,


4 Aristotle., and Terence Irwin. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett

     Pub., 1999.

5 Luke Mastin. “Utilitarianism.” The Basics of Philosophy. Accessed May 1, 2016.

6 Aristotle.

7 Burton, Neel, M.D. “Aristotle on Happiness.” Psychology Today. Last modified

    January 28, 2013. Accessed May 1, 2016.

One thought on “Americans and their Selfish Happiness

  1. I absolutely agree with this, Olivia! You bring up some excellent points on the selfish attitude that American’s have towards happiness. People tend to want the best for themselves and in America that is “the best of the best.” I think that the idea of success and achieving “the extreme of any mean” is rooting in the basis for our country: The American Dream. I think the only way we can change this is if we had a complete change in mindset to what “success” is. I also think people are becoming more and more aware of this false reality that is the American Dream.
    You go girl!
    -Jesse P.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s