How is Aristotle’s view of happiness relevant in today’s society?

Brooke Holden – Period 1

When asked ‘what makes you happy,’ what would you say? Would you respond with having a nice house? Being able to go to your dream school? Having a nice family? Or maybe doing something you love doing? Whatever it may be, happiness is one of the most common threads among all of humanity. But what exactly is happiness? According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, it is the state of feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life or situation.[1] Yet, this still does not give a concrete explanation as to what makes people feel this pleasure. For example, while one person feels happy when getting a ‘B’ on a test, another person may only be happy if they get an ‘A’ on that same test. So therefore, it seems all relative. People can feel happy for a variety of different reasons, but there must be a root to this feeling.

Aristotle tackled this question of happiness in The Nicomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle, we all have a goal or end to life, which is our function as a human being, and this end is good. He perused many different ‘ends’ in life, such as honor, virtue, and pleasure, but concluded that only happiness can be the one universal goal for humans. However, still what does happiness entail? In keeping with Aristotle’s definition, he says that happiness is “an exercise of the vital faculties in accordance with perfect virtue or excellence.”[2] This essentially means that happiness is using the abilities we have in our souls in the most excellent way. Happiness is everything, never lacking any piece to the puzzle, and is sufficient enough to provide for all our needs. It includes other means to the end such as pleasure, virtue, honor, reason, contemplation, and amusement. All of these combined together make this true happiness you feel. But how, then, do poor people and slaves participate in this happiness when their lives are full of toil and trouble? Again, happiness doesn’t have to do with what you do for sport, but how you live virtuously and with reason.

There are many countries in the world where it is very evident if they are happy or not. For example, it would seem that the United States is much happier than war torn Afghanistan or Iran. However, there are many things countries do and don’t do that contribute to these feelings. In the 2016 World Happiness Report, Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland were rated the top three happiest countries in the world.[3] On the other hand, Burundi, Syria, and Togo were put at the very bottom of this list, classified as the least happy countries in the world. There is much speculation as to what contributing factors can give these countries such different ratings.

Switzerland, the second happiest country in the world, had many different attributing factors to their high happiness level. One of the first reasons mentioned was their high GDP, or gross domestic product. They were ranked eighth overall in the world for GDP.[4] Surely, being able to spend money and be confident in one’s economy can make someone happy. Another prominent factor is their 90 year life expectancy rate, which is also one of the highest in the world. Other influences include having one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe, their excellent health care system, and their ability to stay out of wars.[5] Switzerland has remained neutral, or out of war in general, since 1847 and has spent very little money on a trained military.[6] This reduces the tension many could feel in the country and increases the optimistic feelings of most likely not being involved in big conflicts. Similarly, Switzerland is known for having a government very close to a direct democracy, a form of democracy in which the people decide through voting and other ways.[7] This allows the citizens to feel involved and have a say as to how their country is run. One fun fact is Switzerland is well known for its production of chocolate, which causes the brain to release dopamine making someone feel happier.[8] Because of the healthy living style and other factors, Switzerland is living right, in accordance with Aristotle’s view of happiness. The citizens are reasonable, which is shown through their high GDP, showing they know how to spend and stimulate their economy. They show pleasure through their production of chocolate. They show virtue through their excellent health care system, allowing them to see every patient right away and never turning someone down. They show their honor through their ability to remain neutral in several major wars since 1847, while also accepting many refugees to their country during those wars. Overall, Switzerland knows what its’ doing to provide for its citizens and ensure their happiness.

Although there are many positive aspects to the Swiss life, there are a few downturns to life in one of the happiest places on earth. The first includes the excessive amount of laws they put on their citizens. This includes the 408 traffic laws in place and other strange laws that may seem pointless to people outside the country.[9] Secondly, the wealth gap between the top and bottom 20% of the population is very large. The top earns almost five times as much as the bottom 20%, creating a large gap between the two classes.[10] While Switzerland is still considered to have one of the highest standards of living, this is becoming an increasingly worse problem. Finally, although there is not much money put in to military services, there is still a mandatory military service for all able bodied males in the country. Although these reasons detract from the happiness defined by Aristotle by taking away their pleasure, amusement, and ability to act virtuously, shown through the large wealth gap, the positives most definitely outweigh the negatives in their lives.

Syria, on the other hand, was ranked much farther down on the World Happiness Report. There are obvious reasons such as the internal conflict in the country, which is causing the majority of the problems for their citizens. Compared to Switzerland’s very high GDP, Syria’s GDP is at a much lower number, almost $630 billion less, accounted for in American dollars.[11] This detracts from the happiness the country can possibly be feeling because they simply don’t have enough money to support and provide for their people. In fact, the government owes over $202 billion from war destruction. Similarly, the life expectancy rate went from 79.5 in 2011 to 55.7 in 2014, a drastic decrease.[12] This has been because of the constant war within their country, a decrease in health care facilities, a decrease in vaccinations for diseases spreading throughout the country, and an increase in the poverty level. Right now, four out of every five people in Syria live in poverty and the unemployment rate is 58%.[13] These are all major factors that contribute to the lack of happiness in the country. There is no pleasure in living in a war torn country. There is no virtue in fighting your own people. There is no honor in having such a low poverty rate. There is no reason to have such a large debt to pay off. There is no amusement in not being able to receive the medical attention you need. Life in Syria is hard and attributes to their low happiness rating.

While all of these factors negatively affect the citizens, there are small steps being taken to improve their lives, and therefore their overall happiness rating. For example, the government has declared a 24 hour cease fire in a prominently war torn area of the country.[14] Likewise, the government is also making negotiations with the United States and Russia to help establish a truce. Both are big steps toward civilizing the country and making the citizens happier. However, this is still not enough to live up to the definition described by Aristotle. The people there are simply not happy.

Since both countries have very different lifestyles, it is easy to see how Switzerland is more able to provide a society that will help its citizens reach the common end, which is happiness. Because of the reasons that make them so happy, such as the high GDP, nice living conditions, neutrality, and others, their society is striving towards the function and end all humans try to accomplish. On the other hand, with Syria’s constant inner conflict and struggling economy with little help from their corrupt government, it is evident they’re struggling to reach the common end for humanity. Without happiness, they are unable to complete their function as a man and therefore reach their common end.

[1] “Happy.” Merriam Webster. Accessed April 28, 2016.

[2] Aristotle. “The Nicomachean Ethics.” How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch. Accessed May 1, 2016.

[3] Hetter, Katla. “Where are the world’s happiest countries?” CNN. March 21, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016.

[4] Smith, Oliver. “Why is Switzerland so happy?” The Telegraph. April 24, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Syria GDP.” Trading Economics. 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016.

[12] Westcott, Lucy. “Syrian Life Expectancy Drops Over 20 Years in Four Years.” Newsweek. March 11, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Calm Returns to Much of Syria as Government Extends Truce.” ABC News.  May 1, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016.

image: “Index.” Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed May 3, 2016.




One thought on “How is Aristotle’s view of happiness relevant in today’s society?

  1. The information about Switzerland is very interesting; I would like to know if the citizens of Switzerland have taken any steps against all of the traffic laws, specifically the ones that are nonsensical? On another point, the Syrian war has definitely affected not only their own people, but neighboring and foreign countries, because it is such a hot topic, whether or not countries should be taking in refugees of the Syrian war when some of them could be potential terrorists. All in all, I agree with the fact that Switzerland is definitely a better/easier country to live in.
    -Georgia Pattee

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