Is happiness a feeling? The classical Greek philosopher Aristotle didn’t think so. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that happiness is the result of habitually cultivating virtue of the soul. Rather than a feeling, happiness is an activity.
“Virtue is interchangeable with good. It is the achievement of purpose,” said Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who is teaching Hillsdale’s free online course on Aristotle.
Happiness is man’s purpose, yet it is commonly thought to be equivalent with wealth, honor, and pleasure. But those concepts inaccurately define happiness, according to Aristotle. Although these three things contribute to happiness, they do not guarantee happiness themselves. All three things are good, but “we all know it wouldn’t be good for us to pursue that exclusively,” Arnn said.
Wealthy, honor, and pleasure are not the substance of the highest good that Aristotle said was happiness. Rather, they are components of it. Not all rich people are happy, and neither are all who seek pleasure. That’s because riches and honor do not achieve man’s purpose. Happiness is man’s purpose. And happiness can only be achieved by the activity of cultivating virtue.
Aristotle distinguishes between two terms, “active condition” and “being-at-work.” “Active condition” is embedding virtues in the soul. Once virtues are part of the soul, Arnn said they radiate from the person. “Being-at-work” is the epitome of the human experience, Aristotle said. It is when a human is fully engaged as a result of expressing character.
The fulfillment of human purpose is like sports. To combine the two terms, active condition at work is the human being excelling as a result of conditioning. This produces happiness.
“Humans are beings made for those moments when its qualities are fully engaged,” Arnn said.
Happiness is intentionally an expression of character. To achieve happiness, our lives must be organized to achieve virtue. Commit to live each day intentionally in a certain way, and each day will become a fulfillment of living to that commitment.
Aristotle is careful to include inevitable misfortune in his discussion about happiness. Although misfortune is bad, it can produce virtue. It may sound hard to believe, but misfortune can create happiness because it conditions our soul. If happiness is the engagement of our qualities, then the conditioning provided by misfortune will produce virtue, and thus happiness.
As Aristotle said, “For happiness was said to be a certain sort of being-at-work of the soul in accordance with virtue, while all the other good things are either conditions that need to be present for happiness or else things that naturally assist the work and are useful as tools.”
“Happiness is ultimately an activity of the soul that is excellent in all of the ways that the human being acts,” Arnn said. “And in all the ways the human being thinks. And if you can be good in all those things, you will certainly have a wide measure of happiness.”
Aristotle believed happiness is obtained through the cultivation of virtue. Virtue conditions our souls to prevail in all aspects of life. It employs our qualities, producing satisfaction and happiness. Thus, happiness is not a feeling, but an activity.