Is Happiness a Privilege?

 

Adesuwa Wilson-Iguade

Period 03

Privilege. The word conjures up a plethora of images, but the one I am referring to in this article is the privilege that sets people apart, particularly in American society. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, defines privilege as a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others[1]

Happiness on the other hand is a little less straightforward when it comes to defining as well as practicing. What is happiness? Happiness can be that feeling you get when you receive an A on a difficult test. Or is it that feeling you get when someone asks you to prom. Happiness can even be defined as that feeling you get when you get accepted into your first choice college.

The actual definition of happiness as seen in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the state of well-being and contentment[2] in comparison, Aristotle describes as something different.

One of Aristotle’s most influential works is the Nicomachean Ethics, where he presents a theory of happiness that is still relevant today, over 2,300 years later[3], and while trying to figure out the purpose of human existence, Aristotle came across this idea of happiness and how it is a human’s final goal. To be an ultimate end though, Aristotle states that an act must be self-sufficient and final, that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else[4]. That in order to fulfill a human’s function, they have to live a life of reason and exercise reason and virtue[5].

Is happiness a privilege? For those who live in America, from the moment a person is born, a stereotype has already been formed to label them–a means to separate and categorize us in a system that thrives off of marginalization.  A citizen in America can be discriminated against based off of preconceived notions or circumstances that are out of their control on a number of issues. For example, socio-economics, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and family structure (for example, living in a single parent household) are some identifiers that can be used to define a human. These identifiers can also be used to discriminate against a person, but how do they play a role in American society?

There are several social ideals seen within society that are expected of us, whether told to us outright or just picked up through unspoken cues, a few being: the expectancy to have straight A’s in school, attend college, eat healthy, and be physically fit. Aristotle states that “happiness depends on ourselves”, but when we are born into a system that does not allow us the same opportunities, the same privileges as others, yet tells us all to aspire for the same goals, how are we all to experience happiness if some of us are more heavily disadvantaged than others.

An example of happiness, and how it can be a luxury is the following: A kid who belongs to a family with a low income, who attends an overcrowded high school who doesn’t have the money to afford tutoring for the college entrance exams (like the SAT or the ACT) and only has enough money to take the test once, is at a bigger disadvantage, than those who have the luck to belong to a family that has the monetary resources to afford private tutoring, as well as the money for the child to take the test on several occasion to better their score.

The privileges don’t make us weaker, or less of human, but it should be asked how we are to achieve happiness by Aristotle’s definition when some of us have inherent disadvantages placed on us the same society that expects so much from us in order to be seen as accomplished or successful.

With that being said, I previously listed a number of identifiers, but would like to further explore one of the more taboo ones, i.e. race and its connection to privilege.

What is white privilege? Well let’s begins with what it’s not.  White privilege is not social class or money. It does not mean you do not know hardship. White privilege is benefiting most in a society structured on oppressing non-white people. No one is saying white people don’t have problems, but these problems do not stem from being white and that is white privilege.

So by Aristotle definition, can a person ever be happy if due to a lack of privilege, they are unable to reach their final goal? And what about those who can’t afford to attend their dream college due to their socio-economic status, or those who are discriminated against based on circumstances that are out of their hands?

In a society, where things are so predetermined, does everybody have the ability to have the opportunity to obtain the happiness that Aristotle wants us to aim for? When there are so many identifiers that separate us, is it possible to have one common overarching goal? I’m not saying the attributes that differentiates us from the most privileged in America (the middle class, cisgender, heterosexual neurotypical white man)  should be used as an excuse to not take strides to try achieve the mainstream idea of what American success and happiness looks like, but I do think it’s something to consider, for if things like race and gender are not taken into consideration when trying to define and discuss the topic of “What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?” and trying to answer it. For without this consideration, we are left with more exclusivity in an already elitist society.

In addition to those who don’t have the advantages or the tools in able to obtain happiness, what about those who have mental disabilities that don’t allow them the opportunity to be happy? Going off both Aristotle’s and the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions, for a person who has chemical imbalance that makes them incredibly depressed, how are they able to achieve happiness? What happens when happiness becomes a burden, and actually has the opposite effect? If trying to obtain happiness, only creates a feeling of ineptness, stress, and anxiety, at what point does a person’s shift their goal to something more obtainable, like just getting out of bed to be productive?

In my opinion, Aristotle’s idea of “happiness” is not the ultimate destination. You are not supposed to be “happy” all the time, nor are you obligated to have set a plan and a final goal in order to be a valid participant of society. Unlike Aristotle’s definition, I perceive happiness as an emotion, one that is overrated. Sure, we need happiness in our life but it’s just a small part in the overall picture of who a person is. The most basic human being, in comparison to all the other living[6] creatures on this earth, is incredibly multi-faceted and complex and design and it’s hard to believe that our only driving force is to be happy. We also need sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, and mistakes in able to grow and make strides to being the best, most complete, version of ourselves. In addition we need the “bad” in order to appreciate the “good”, the times when we experience peace, joy, laughter, and warmth.

Bottomline: the primary hole in Aristotle’s argument is that instead of taking the entirety of a being into consideration and then developing a standard of excellence based on this person’s nature, you get only address a part of it and by doing so you tend to leave a lot of people out of the moral enterprise as a result.

 

 

 

 

[1]“Privilege.” Merriam Webster. Accessed April 30, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/privilege

 

[2] “Happy.” Merriam Webster. Accessed April 30, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/happy

[3] “Aristotle.” Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed 02 May 2016.

[4]  “Aristotle.” Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed 02 May 2016.

[5] Aristotle. “The Nicomachean Ethics.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. ed. Bernardo Aparicio. Accessed 2016.

[6] “Aristotle.” Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed 02 May 2016.

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