Happiness, like time, love and beauty, is seemingly one of those ideas whose meaning is clear to us only if no one asks us to explain it. And, hence, it ends up being assigned whatever meaning seems safe and useful at the time, which, ultimately, is not particularly helpful in any practical sense.
No one seems to dispute that happiness is something that we should all pursue and try to achieve. From Aristotle to the Dalai Lama, and every commentator in between, the pursuit of happiness seems to be identified with life’s fundamental meaning and purpose.
It is also confirmed by our own experience that the precise and most fundamental impulse of our life is toward happiness.
But, what is it really?
Perhaps, if we turn to the ancient world, we can find someone who can help us climb out of this ambiguity. The Greek philosopher Aristotle asks us to consider the following fundamental insight: The proper practical knowledge (i.e., knowledge about how to act and not just what to think), which is the domain of ethics and politics, depends upon a prior understanding of what is the ultimate goal of human existence. And it is obvious to him that this ultimate goal is human happiness and that it is something more than mere physical pleasure, power, fame or wealth.
But, even Aristotle himself acknowledges (in his Nichomachean Ethics) that this is only the beginning of the search. “Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems to be a mere platitude; we will need a more explicit account of what constitutes happiness.”
So, we continue. Since we observe that everything in nature seems to aim at its own ultimate fulfillment and perfection (for example, the acorn naturally tends toward its completion as an oak tree), we are inclined to conclude that there must also be an ultimate cause or goal toward which a human being’s natural growth and advancement are oriented. What we’re seeking here, of course, is an objective standard of human happiness, one that applies to every human being, one that is essentially human.
And, here again Aristotle offers some help when he says that “the good of human beings resides in their function.” If plumbers and auto mechanics have definite functions which belong to them, then surely human beings also must have a function proper to them as human beings. And since what seems to be unique about human beings is that they are rational, then their unique function must be somehow tied to “the practical life of their rational part.” What he means by this is that our purpose in life, the fulfillment of which amounts to our happiness and true satisfaction, consists of actually living one’s life intelligently by using one’s knowledge and understanding in freely making day-to-day choices.
There is one more insight that we might find useful. The achievement of the intelligent and good life, which is identical with genuine happiness, is much more than the mere possession of the right knowledge or skills; it is ultimately a matter of freely chosen and sincerely desired actions which are good and, if repeated diligently and consistently, become moral virtues, like generosity, courage and self-control.
Finally, we must ask whether such a life is possible if it is lived in isolation from others, or whether it is more likely that human fulfillment depends on living with others in friendship. Since Aristotle believes that a human being is “by nature a political animal” (that is, a being whose nature is to live in a polis, the Greek word for “society” or “genuine community”), he would argue that a life of solitude is alien to human nature and an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of genuine human happiness.
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