How To Be Happy

How To Be Happy

Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle shared the secret of how to be happy. The answer is found in edited notes from his lectures that were compiled into a book called the Nicomachean Ethics.

His "formula" for achieving happiness and prosperity is as relevant today as it was when he first shared it with his students two millenia ago.

Two Types of Goods

Aristotle taught there are two types of goods:

(1) things good in and of themselves (i.e first order goods)

(2) things good as a means to obtain these first order goods (i.e. second order goods).

Money, for example, is a second order good as it is only useful for buying things. Goods of the first order include art, nature, love, music as well as many others that stand on their own merit.

Some first order goods can be downgraded to second order goods when they are used to acquire something else such as when an investor buys art strictly to flip it for an economic profit.

The Supreme Good

Are there first order goods that people choose only for their own sake and never as a means to obtain something else? That are never downgraded to second order goods?

Aristotle identifies one. He calls it the Supreme Good. The Greek word for this best and final good is eudaimonia. It is often translated as "happiness" but other meanings include prosperity, success, fortune, ease, enjoyment.

This eudaimonia is more than just a pleasant feeling. It is a fortunate state of being that is reached by performing certain activities in a certain manner.

Happiness is something we choose.

What are the activities Aristotle identifies that lead to happiness or a state of blessedness?

They are actions that we take in accordance with our best selves. In accordance with excellence or virtue.

Showing courage, giving to others, acting as a friend are some of the items Aristotle enumerates.

But it is not enough to just perform these actions; they must be done in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason and to the right people. Aristotle readily admits that this is not an easy standard to achieve. He calls it observing the mean - not being deficient in our actions nor taking them to excess.

The Highest Activity

Yet, Aristotle says there is one activity above all that when pursued can lead to perfect happiness. The Greek word for this activity is theoreos. It is most often translated "to contemplate", but it is broader than that. It means to behold, gaze, view with attention, inspect, weigh, consider, perceive, experience, feel.

To be truly happy, we must live life with open eyes and a contemplative mind. To relish our experiences, reflect on them, learn from them. We must do so over an extended period, not just while on vacation.

Aristotle writes, "Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make Spring, nor does one fine day; similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy."

A contemplative life does not require money. "But the student, so far as the pursuit of his activity is concerned needs no external apparatus: on the contrary, worldly goods may almost be said to be a hindrance to contemplation;"

It simply requires a willingness to engage our minds. Aristotle believes our ability to contemplate is divine. He enjoins us to not simply reflect on mortality but "so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him."

-J.D. Stein | November 2013