A Distorted View on Happiness

Margaret Gehrki

It seems that we are always working toward a happy life; however, in our society today it seems that people are always buying towards a happy life. People buy “stuff” thinking that it will make them seem successful or more popular, and that meeting the standards of these defining characteristics will bring them pleasure and contentment. However through the words of Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, it is evident to see that, “happiness would seem to need but a small supply of externals goods, certainly less than the moral life”.[1] No matter the place that you live or the wealth that one has, happiness is an end goal that all can meet.

Many would think that those living in third world countries are unhappy because of the type of life that they are living and the conditions that they are in. Anaxagoras even says, ”that he should not be surprised if the happy man were one whom the masses could hardly believe to be so; for they judge by the outside, which is all they can appreciate”.[2]  So often we judge others based on their social rank and goods that they flaunt around. Because of this, the ideal happy person in many societal eyes is someone who lives in a big house, drives three different cars, and travels all over the world, many of which are people being celebrities in Hollywood. However, these are the same people that you see struggling with depression and getting admitted into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.  Over my freshman and sophomore year I volunteered at my church and helped on Sundays with the Sudanese refugees that had come over during the violent war times in Sudan. These people were starting from scratch; no job, no money, no clothes, except for the ones that they were able to fit in their bag as they were fleeing their country.  To see how happy these people were and how generous and thankful they were to receive an orange or banana at lunchtime was incredible to experience. These people expressed so much goodness and joy and to an eighteen year old from a highly esteemed school, living in a moderately nice house, this seemed so strange to me. I just kept asking myself the question, “How could these people truly be happy when they have absolutely nothing”. Even up to this year I still was never really able to grasp the concept until reading The Nicomachean Ethics. I know what you are thinking, “Oh wow Margaret so cliché of you to say this” but I truly feel this way. The Sudanese people have an Aristotelian view on happiness in life and through reading this I was able to understand exactly what that meant.

Aristotle said that, “It is not the superabundance of good things that makes a man independent, or enables him to act; … A moderate equipment may give you opportunity for virtuous action. For that man’s life will be happy who has virtue and exercises it”.[3] He is basically saying that it does not matter how many material possessions that we own but the way that we live and exercise our virtues in life. After understanding this, I was better able to understand the happiness of the people that I was helping. These people seemed so content with the life that they were living and the state of poverty that they were surrounded by. Yes, they had been a part of such violent times and lost their homes and most of their friends and family but the way that they handled this and still were able to live out a good moral life was inspiring. To back up Aristotle’s views and insights on happiness Pope Leo XIII also states in Rerum Novarum that “Riches and the other things which men call good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance, or are lacking in them – so far as eternal happiness is concerned – it makes no difference,”. [4]This is another good reinforcement that materials do not mean anything when it comes to eternal happiness.

Another topic mentioned in the books was Anaxagoras’s view on class rank and its importance when it comes to finding happiness. He says, “The happy man was neither a rich man nor a prince”.[5] Through this insight and Solon’s opinion that “a man who has but modest means may do his duty”[6] it is easy to understand that the rank of your family in society will not be able to determine your happiness but instead the way that you live your life with what you have. It is the noble deeds that you do and the virtuous actions that you exemplify in your life that will lead to your ultimate and end happiness in life. Keeping this in mind, look at our American society today. Status is everything to us and affects our attitudes and judgements towards everyone. It is like a teenage girls Instagram post; if she gets below one hundred likes she is seen as a below average person who is not very popular, if she gets in between one hundred and three hundred she is doing alright and is a pretty average person, if she gets four hundred and beyond she is seen as a well-liked person who is probably very happy because she is so popular. This is one of the biggest issues with our society today among the topic of happiness. Likes on a social media account are not going to allow a person to receive the happiness that they want in their life and many have a difficult time understanding this. Look at the Sudanese people for example. They do not even have a cell phone let alone a social media account and yet they are able live in a way that they can live out their duties that they are called to in a moral sense. These girls that are seen as happy because of how pretty and popular they are may be some of the least virtuous people. Through the Aristotle way of thinking this is not the definition of a happy person.

I think that reading these types of works in our class is extremely beneficial to everyone. As I said before, we are at an esteemed school and most of us are a part of an upper middle class family. Hearing that happiness is achievable without having to purchase an abundant amount of goods or having to be of the best social rank is new information to most girls at our age. I know that seeing the Sudanese so happy was a huge shock to me and through reading this I was better able to understand the true definition of happiness and the steps that you must take in order to truly achieve it. The Aristotelian view on an individual’s happiness is one that we should try and live out every day of our lives. Through the virtuous acts that we perform and the way that we exercise our virtue in our everyday life can one truly experience happiness as our end.  No matter the amount of materials that one has or the social rank that they have obtained, each person has the opportunity to live in this way. If our society was able to live as the Sudanese do and be content with the simple life that they lead, then maybe we would be able to experience the pleasures of happiness easier. We need to forget about our homes, our cars, and our social status and worry more about the way that we are exercising our virtue in our own lives.


[1] “The Nicomachean Ethics.” Aristotle in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[2] Ibn


[3] “The Nicomachean Ethics.” Aristotle in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[4] “Rerum Novarum.” Pope Leo XIII in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[5] “The Nicomachean Ethics.” Aristotle in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[6] ibn


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