A Beginner’s Guide to Happiness
Around 384 BC, the ‘Father of Western Philosophy’ was born in Central Macedonia. He grew up to become arguably the most influential thinker that ever lived, tutoring renowned figures like Alexander the Great and studying alongside Plato. His name was Aristotle.
In his works, Aristotle asked many questions about life — fascinated by the world and its intricacies. How do birds fly? Do humans have a soul? And most importantly, what does it mean to be truly happy?
Perhaps one quote best summarizes Aristotle’s general approach to finding contentment, or as he calls it, ‘Eudaimonia’.
“Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
Maybe it does — but how can we find it?
That’s what Aristotle set out to discover, and in this article, I’ll be discussing some of his most insightful principles on finding satisfaction in or lives.
Pursue Happiness (Not Pleasure)
In his text, ‘The Nicomachean Ethics’, Aristotle discusses pleasure in the context of long-lasting happiness.
He suggests that there are ultimately only two kinds of pleasure: lesser and greater. Though both can seem similar at times, they are inherently very different.
Lesser pleasures are those that offer instant gratification: eating junk food, having sex or sleeping in late — to give but a few examples. While these may, on the surface, appear to hold the key to happiness, they often only delay its arrival.
We’ve all experienced the temptation of over-eating, succumbed to our desires and subsequently wound up feeling bloated and disappointed in ourselves, filled to the brim with fried chicken and regret. That’s instant gratification — and it usually only results in misery. Aristotle suggests that lesser pleasure is largely to blame for our perennial dissatisfaction in life.
Greater pleasures, on the other hand, offer genuine and long-lasting contentment. They promise deeper satisfaction, fulfillment and a sense of achievement.
Losing weight, for example, would feel far better in a year than eating cake right now, yet dropping a dress size requires grit, determination, and abstinence.
Although greater pleasure often comes at a price, it’s usually worth the tradeoff. In fact, pursuing more meaningful pleasure in our health, work and lives may be the only way that we can ever feel truly satisfied.
Waking up every day and feeling happy with how our body looks is undoubtedly a worthier pleasure than the momentary taste of trans-fat and refined carbs.
As Aristotle writes,
“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”
A mere flash of pleasure does not translate to a lifetime of happiness. Rather, happiness comes from prioritizing our long-term goals and values over short-term satisfaction.
A Society Built on Instant Pleasure
Despite its obvious detriment to our happiness, instant gratification is an integral part of our culture in the modern world.
TV commercials tantalize us to purchase pleasure with our hard-earned money and social media platforms have us hankering for the next bout of likes to pour in to nurture our sense of self-importance.
Our society and economy depend upon our deep longing for immediate satisfaction. And yet, we can never find true happiness by chasing after fleeting, short-lived pleasures.
Instead, it’s imperative that we to learn to see through the fog and make the right choices for us — to start putting our long-term happiness before the novel temptations of each moment.
Cultivate Meaningful Friendships
According to Aristotle, friendship is one of the most vital ingredients of true, long-lasting happiness. So much did he believe in the value of friendship that he insisted ‘whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.’
I’m unsure if the more introverted among us should be likened to animals or deities, but it’s an unrefutable fact that social interaction is crucial to our happiness. Relationships, in any capacity, give life color and meaning.
And although our relationships can provide us with enormous amounts of joy, they can also be toxic, unhealthy and stressful. As Aristotle observed, not all relationships are equal, and most fall into one of three disparate categories:
There are those friendships that come about only when both people are seeking fun, their chief interests in receiving pleasure. Each person serves as a utility with which to have a good time — like relationships maintained only because of a mutual desire for sex.
The next type is strategic. Both people enjoy each other’s company insofar as they stand to gain something from it. The relationship is preserved only out of self-interest and the prospect of gaining some kind of advantage.
Lastly, there are true, virtuous friendships, formed between people that are not only like you, but whom you care dearly about. Your sorrows and joys are shared, and neither party wishes for personal gain or power — only pleasure in each others’ company.
I’m sure we can all identify relationships of our own that relate to at least one of these categories, but it’s clear that the latter type of relationship stands to bring us the most happiness.
Genuine, meaningful friendships are not based upon utility or pleasure, but rather a shared concern for the other person’s best interests — characterized by honesty, empathy, and appreciation.
“The best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake” — Aristotle
True friendships supersede honor, status, and wealth; there are no terms or contracts. They provide both virtue and enjoyment together, satisfying not only our emotions but also our intellectual desires.
As William Penn writes,
“A true friend freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.”
Together, two friends may become better, cleverer, more resilient and increasingly empathetic — receptive to one another’s needs. These friendships bring us up and teach us what we ought to be, bringing us closer to becoming the person we wish to become.
They make true happiness seem less like an impossible feat and more like a manageable, attainable state. They are simply one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Find Satisfaction in Good Deeds
Think back to the last time you did something truly selfless and kind for another person. Amongst all of our actions, nothing quite has the power to uplift us as much as the knowledge that we are acting in order to make another person feel good.
In the words of Goldie Hawn,
“Giving back is as good for you as it is for those you are helping, because giving gives you purpose. When you have a purpose-driven life, you’re a happier person.”
Aristotle proposed that all good, happy people possess positive character traits — like generosity, friendship, and kindness. They find pleasure in sacrificing their own comfort for the good of others.
Learning the value of selflessness and being able to give freely is fundamental to our happiness and peace of mind.
After all, life has little meaning if its purpose if crafted solely out of self-interest. Pursuing money, fame, status — chasing anything material at the expense of being a truly good person is futile, and a sure path to misery.
Happy people appreciate the fact that boundless joy can be found in the simple virtue of generosity.
Happiness is elusive. It’s a desire that motivates our every move and yet somehow still seems to escape our grip. Aristotle set out to teach others how to find satisfaction in life for the simple reason that most people just don’t know how.
In our pursuit, we’re often misguided by short-term pleasures, false friendships and driven to make poor decisions based upon our fleeting urges — and we always seem to wind up right at the beginning, trying to figure out where to turn next.
By looking at Aristotle’s ideas, the picture becomes a little clearer. Perhaps our search for happiness begins with just three basic principles.
Prioritizing long-term happiness. Not all pleasures are equal. Chasing after satisfaction without foresight often only results in misery. Before eating another slice of pizza or snoozing your alarm, consider your long-term happiness. Will you thank yourself for this decision tomorrow? By getting really good at making the distinction between momentary gratification and lasting contentment, true happiness becomes an easier end to reach.
Surrounding ourselves with the right friends. There are many kinds of friendship — some are based purely upon personal gain, others upon mutual pleasure, and the most important kind, upon virtue. Friendships should serve to uplift us and motivate us to become better people. By enriching our lives with meaningful, genuine relationships, we stand better equipped to find true satisfaction.
Give freely to other people. Whether it’s our time, knowledge, money or support, nothing uplifts us so much as helping other people to feel happier. Aristotle stated that the virtue of generosity is one of the most vital ingredients of a life well lived.
To shamelessly quote Madonna,
“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always change, become a better version of yourself.”
Happiness is a difficult goal to reach, but with small steps and purposeful actions, we can find it. It’s there. And it’s waiting for us.