In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle presents an idea about what it means to actually be happy, which is still very relevant in modern day.
The critical question he tries to answer is the purpose of the human condition. What’s the purpose being alive and where should people put their effort in life? Everywhere people seek pleasure and gratification and money, but while many of these have value on their own, none can replace the pinnacle of good that’s argued for by Aristotle. For something to be an ultimate end, it has to lead nowhere but itself, and be sustaining enough for people to want it for no other reason than it itself holds value–”that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096d). He says that most everyone agrees that happiness meets those prerequisites. It is simple to understand that people have desires for pleasure, money and reputation, because many people think these things will actually make them happier than without. It seems like every good a person can seek is realistically just a way to be happy.
Eudaemonia is an ancient Greek word that is often translated to happiness, but that can be very misleading. In modern day, happiness is most often defined as a temporary state of mind that is brought on by a single action or short period of time. Especially in America, someone might say they’re happy enjoying a day at the pool or going to a baseball game with their friends. In Aristotle’s view, happiness is an end that will ultimately encompass the entirety of one’s life and is not something that can ever be gained in a few hours.
Those are just pleasurable sensations that people mistake for true happiness. Happiness is more akin to your entire life up to now, and a measurement of how well you have fulfilled your potential as a person. This is why we can’t really make a determination of whether or not someone is truly happy at any point other than the end of their life. It wouldn’t be any more correct to say that a young child is happy any more than it would be to say that a seed is also a tree. It takes an extraordinary amount of time for an oak tree to grow, and the potential for life and happiness in a child hasn’t been realized.
Aristotle said that “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a). Aristotle draws on his own first hand views of nature to explain happiness in humans, and he is able to categorize everything that exists in nature into certain categories. It seems that in respect to humans we have been given a unique ability to reason. Through reason we can solve our own complex problems and achieve ends, and live a life that is innately different from an animal or a plant. The very fact that humans can read the thoughts of others and write and can contemplate our own mental ability is amazing. The human brain can ponder the meaning of infinity and even question itself.
It is this ability for meta thought that drastically increases human potential as a whole. What a human would define as good is greatly different from what an animal would as we have different potential. Humans have the ability to be rational. Because of this pleasure alone can’t ever constitute true happiness, as pleasure is sought by humans and animals alike. Destroying physical urges isn’t the goal, but rather to conduct ourselves in a way that is appropriate to our potential. Aristotle eventually gives a concrete definition of happiness.
“The function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098b). Here Aristotle links the concepts of virtue and happiness together. He says the most important piece of being truly happy is centered around good moral character. He calls this complete virtue; but having sound virtue cannot be achieved passively. A person has to at all times act accordingly to be virtuous. According to Aristotle, happiness mainly consists of attaining throughout one’s life everything that leads to the enrichment of your own life and nature as a human.
“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a). This statement suggests that while happiness isn’t necessarily tangible it does still reply on physical goods and pleasures to attain. Often difficult choices have to be made between different pleasures which will result in a better or worse long term outcome. There may be an easily available pleasure which is more tempting, but the long term better good is probably less easily accessible and may require you to sacrifice immediate gratification.
For example, there is a big difference between playing video games all night which may provide instant satisfaction, and instead spending the evening writing a paper which will result in the near future a good grade an addition to time to relax and play video games. Aristotle would likely be incredibly critical of the abundance of instant gratification in today’s society. In order to be virtuous, a person has to constantly be mindful of the future and what choices will lead them to their own desired outcome. Particularly in modern day America, people lead lives very much in the moment where instant reward or punishment is the only thing they are concerned with.
It is not unreasonable to say that it is human nature to want good things immediately, but the ability of the human mind to reason at such a high level should mean that we can overcome those desires in order to choose something that is infinitely more satisfying in the long term, and may or may not have a reward in the near term. Instant gratification has definitely provided an advantage in the past, especially for pre-modern humans where every day there may not have been a tomorrow if a person relied on any decision other than one that would affect them immediately. The point is that while every human should be able to reason that delayed gratification provides better reward, very few people go through the effort of actually forcing themselves to choose that path. Later Aristotle discusses the concept of akrasia, or weakness of will. His theory is that the only way to be virtuous is not to just think that way, but to instead become virtuous by constantly being in that mindset and forcing and training yourself to be that way. It can only come through constant practice.
The problem here is that very few people today put any emphasis on training and practice to avoid succumbing to short term pleasures. Everyone has the capacity for virtue, so long as they are able to recognize proper morals of character to practice. To use a personal example, one would be very hard pressed to find a practitioner of martial arts who didn’t drastically improve over time simply through consistent practice. It doesn’t require innate skill or special talents, but rather just consistency of action. Despite the obvious benefit of delayed gratification over just seeking out pleasure and wealth in the short term, Aristotle still seems to ignore the fact that maybe a balance between the two can still lead to a favorable outcome.
Can someone really say on their deathbed that they truly lived a life of happiness if they spent their entire life seeking something in the future? Aristotle suggested to stay further away from that which deviated in excess from the mean. So long as everything is kept balanced, someone can still be virtuous. Most things, if they are not already good in their entirety, have good in them. For example, a man can go vote in an election which by nature is a good thing which will produce a favorable outcome in his community in that he is participating actively and putting effort into improvement. He can then also go see a baseball game in lieu of more intellectual work because were he to completely forego personal pleasure for a longer term reward, there would be no reason to continue that way.
Part of being virtuous was to do something for its own sake, but realistically people need motivation to do things, particularly of the bitrinsic kind. By nature humans are not conditioned to do things with no tangible reward or benefit. While reason can provide motivation to do something that is otherwise not immediately beneficial, constantly doing things that are entirely lacking in instant gratification can be quite demoralizing and may lead to someone abandoning these principles entirely. One thing Aristotle argues that provides both current and future pleasure is friendship. For him friendship is one of the most important principles in achieving Eudaemonia. There are many different kinds of friendship, but Aristotle believed the highest form was one based on virtuous principles where two people were friends for no reason other than its own sake and the internal reward of having another person with whom you mutually genuinely want the best for the other.
A point he makes is that one can’t have a large number of friends because it takes so much work and effort to maintain a friendship based on virtue, that you can’t have that with an excessively large number of people. While this is true, what of the people that do indeed have several very close virtuous relationships, but also find themselves more at peace and satisfied with a large number of less close friends and acquaintances? They may not know those people to same degree as their most personal friendships, but they could very well still hold a lot of value in those relationships. Individual people can absolutely find different ways to enjoy themselves that are still by definition virtuous. Human nature is that people are inherently different from one another, and that means a universal principle can’t be applied the same way to every person.
Aristotle put great weight in the “Golden Mean” between excess and deficiency, where it is critical to practice balance in all things you do. Aristotle tended to view virtue in character similarly to a healthy body, where living a balanced life without too much excess or deficiency in any area. Health in the soul is the same way.
A balance is required between too much passion and not enough in order to lead a peaceful and fulfilling life. As every individual is different, he concludes that “a settled condition of the soul which wills or chooses the mean relatively to ourselves” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1006b). Every person must find a balance specific to themselves which lets them practice good moral character to really achieve happiness.