Can we choose to be happy? Aristotle thought that we could. He outlines his reasons in a series of tantalisingly brief notes compiled as the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle whatever we choose, we choose because we want to be happy or fulfilled. We make decisions that are ‘choiceworthy.’
“Happiness more than anything else seems unconditionally complete, since we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”
Aristotle’s main idea is that we never choose happiness for the sake of something else. He argued that all our choices in life are aimed at the goal of happiness. We choose the person we will marry because we are convinced that that person will bring us (hopefully) everlasting happiness. Similarly we choose to settle in places because we feel that we are going to be happy there. When we get fed up with living in, say, London, we move to Devon, or to Cambridge or Spain. Happiness draws us along the line of decision making. The only thing that we need to keep in mind is that we can’t choose beyond happiness.
Aristotle makes the goal of happiness both incredibly simple and fiendishly difficult. For a start, many people who live lives of acute desperation are often not aware that happiness is even a valid choice for them. I imagine young women who have been kidnapped as victims of human trafficking gangs rarely feel that they have any options, and that applies also to victims of any form of violence. Child soldiers; young prostitutes; sweat shop workers; the homeless; migrant fruit pickers – for many people in these situations their daily decisions are aimed at survival alone and happiness itself is a remote dream.
Circumstances must always influence happiness: you simply can’t compare the happiness of a wealthy business woman with an online empire and her children educated in independent schools with a woman who still has to carry water to her children who may die of disease before they reach adulthood. Global happiness is clearly not a level playing field.
I would argue, though, that we can still find wisdom in Aristotle’s ideas. If we are going to aim for something in life then surely it is better to aim at happiness than to dismiss it from our lives because it does not apply to our circumstances at the time? It is a rare human being who cannot recall a single happy moment. For those living the most wretched of circumstances, it is those moments of lightness and relief that keep them going and act as the bridge between merely existing and truly living.
Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s memoir from the ‘human laboratory’ of the Holocaust death camps builds the case that courage and hope are closely connected. If we can hope, then we have the will to live, and in order to move beyond despair we need to make fundamental changes in our attitude toward life. Frankl, a professor of neurology and psychiatry, who spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps, writes movingly of his role as mentor to those for whom the relentless brutality of camp existence had extinguished all hope…’we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.’
The answer, for Frankl, does not lie in in the innocent pursuit of happiness, but in ‘right action and in ‘right conduct.’
Here Frankl’s ideas dovetail with Aristotle’s. For both thinkers seem to agree that happiness is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of life, but a series of activities and challenges that we must overcome in order to draw our own map of meaning. Right action and right conduct means living an ethical life.
In the notes throughout his Ethics, Aristotle is vague on the question of whether happiness is a gift of the Gods. He more or less admits that he didn’t know, but that if it were a gift from the Gods then that would be a reasonable thing for the Gods to offer. He is more interested in how we can achieve happiness through our own actions. He didn’t think that fate brings us good fortune. He is not superstitious. He argues that it is better to be happy through our own efforts than through good fortune because fortune is easily lost and therefore unreliable. The Ethics is a reasoned enquiry into the elements that make up the best kind of life. One of its conclusions is that activity brings lasting happiness.
“…since it is activities that control life…no blessed person could ever become miserable since he will never do hateful and base actions. For a truly good and intelligent person will bear strokes of fortune suitably and from his resources at any time will do the finest actions, just as a good general will make the best use of his forces in war, and a good shoemaker will produce the finest shoe from the hides given him, and similarly for all other craftsmen…”
In this idea that purposeful and creative activity brings psychological benefits, Aristotle follows Plato. This idea is central to Greek thinking on harmony. A person living in harmony lives a life that is well-suited to their talents and character. If you are suited to be a shoemaker then that is what you should do for life and if you make the best shoes possible and keep all your customers happy then you in turn will be happy.
“Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps be a way to study happiness better.”
Aristotle turns his attention to what he calls ‘the virtues of character,’ or good habits of mind. The term ‘ethical’ comes from habit or ethos. For Aristotle, then, the good character is ethical. He claims that ethics does not arise in us naturally. We are not born ethical, as anyone who has spent time with toddlers will recognise. Aristotle claims that we become ethical through a process of habituation. We learn the right way to act.
“The right sort of habituation must avoid excess and deficiency.”
Aristotle advocates the middle way. If we avoid extremes of all kinds we can achieve balance and harmony in our lives and it is this sense of equilibrium that leads to happiness. For Aristotle, happiness is temperance and moderation; a state of poise and tranquillity that has echoes in Buddhist ideas of recognising that it is craving that leads to suffering.
“For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength; and likewise, too much too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health…the same is true of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash.”
But his claims about habituation raise a puzzle: How can we become good without being good already?
Aristotle’s response is that we need to practise ethics rather than relying on theory. There is no point in reading a book about how to live a better life unless you put into action some of the ideas suggested. We become happy by doing activities that put us in a good state. We create our own well-being.
“The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions.”
Aristotle argues that knowing ourselves is fundamental to achieving happiness. We need to observe our own tendencies on the scale of extremes and deficiencies. Are we more inclined to be passive or aggressive; active or inactive? A dreamer or a doer; intellectually or emotionally driven? Are we generous or cautious with money? When we know what we are like, we can find our own midpoint on the circle.
“Giving and spending money is easy and anyone can do it; but doing it to the right person in the right amount at the right time for the right end and in the right way is no longer easy nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy and fine.”
Which makes Aristotle’s idea of happiness sound like a goal worth pursing, not for the glow of contentment it brings, but for the motivation it gives us to shape and adjust our ethical lives so that we may become endowed with the happiness that we truly deserve.