November 2022: The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness: Everyone Has an Unalienable Right to Pursue It. Everyone Wants It. Yet, Few Americans Seem Happy Today. Why?

The United States was founded, in part, upon the individual, free pursuit of happiness. According to a recent Gallup survey, however, Americans are not happy people. 

The problem is more than mere opinion polls. In the United States, rates of depression and other mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide, have been going up, even before 2020 and the COVID pandemic-panic. Teenage suicides, in particular, are at unprecedented, historic levels. 

What is going on? We, as a nation, seem very unhappy.

This case study offers a humble suggestion: Perhaps the reason many Americans are unhappy is because they don’t know what happiness is, or what it requires.

Many Americans, especially those who have spent some time in American colleges or universities, assume, without investigation, that there is no such thing as objective happiness, that there are merely different and differing opinions about what happiness is, none more correct or right  (or more wrong) than others?

Perhaps, just maybe, they’re wrong. Perhaps, just maybe, human happiness is something real that can be known, at least to some degree, objectively. It’s worth considering, is it not? And if one looks for an objective meaning of happiness, one should begin with Aristotle, who wrote what is arguably the most famous book on happiness, his Nicomachean Ethics.

This case study provides the classical, Aristotelian understanding of happiness and connects it to the American way of life. 

The American Founders understood the classical concept of happiness. They wrote and spoke about it. They agreed with it. They saw no conflict between classical happiness and their own principles of liberty and self-government. They benefited from ancient thinking regarding human happiness. It made them better people, better citizens. 

Similarly, we too can benefit — we can be better people, happier people, and better citizens — if only we open our minds to learning what happiness is, take responsibility for our own happiness, and make choices that align with it. 

 

PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS: AN UNALIENABLE RIGHT

The Declaration of Independence famously presents three of the most important unalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — before explaining that the only legitimate purpose of government is “to secure these rights.” 

When a government fails its purpose and becomes a threat to the rights it is supposed to protect, according to the Declaration, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

It’s curious, isn’t it? In the most famous of all American political documents — and one of the most important documents in all of history — we find “happiness” mentioned not once, but twice, in the opening lines. Why would the Founders give happiness such a place of prominence in their Declaration of Independence?

Here, it is a mistake to assume the Founders held the same modern, relativistic opinions many Americans today hold. 

Certainly, many Americans assume and assert there is no moral or political truth that applies to all people, in all places, throughout all time. They assume there are merely diverse opinions, points of view, and prejudices, about human matters, all equally valid because none are more or less true than others. 

That includes the subject of happiness: The modern, relativistic view is that different people have different opinions about what happiness is, or is not, but it’s impossible to know whether some opinions are more correct, or less correct, because there is no truth about human happiness. 

From the premise of moral relativism, springs the shallow modern assumption that happiness is nothing more than mere fleeting, and very personal, feelings. If one person calls a certain feeling “happy,” then that feeling is happiness for that person at that moment. Another person might “feel” that happiness is something else, etc.

The problem of this modern view was summed up poetically in the 1996 song, “If It Makes You Happy,” by singer and musical artist Sheryl Crow, which includes these lyrics: If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?

The American Founders, as well as Aristotle, would likely respond that the person making choices that result in sadness doesn’t understand what happiness is.

VIRTUE & HAPPINESS: AN INDISSOLUBLE UNION

In his First Inaugural Address, George Washington wrote “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” He quickly added that also united, indissolubly, are “duty and advantage” as well as “the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”

Virtue and happiness, according to Washington, are directly and forever linked. It’s impossible to have one without the other. The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of virtue. 

In his speech, Washington succinctly summarized the teaching of Aristotle. We can summarize Washington: One has to be good in order to be happy. 

Washington was sharing ancient wisdom with his fellow citizens. The clearest statement of that wisdom is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle opens, on the first page, by observing: “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seem to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim.”

Aristotle goes on to explain that there is a hierarchy among our choices,  and the purposes or ends our choices are intended to achieve. For example, consider the ordinary practice of setting an alarm clock before going to bed. You choose to set your alarm not because you enjoy setting the alarm, or hearing the alarm sound. Rather, you set your alarm for the purpose, the end, of waking up on time the next morning. 

In turn, you want to wake on time for even higher purposes, or ends: You want to get to work or school on time, or arrive at the airport in time to catch your flight. Even those purposes are chosen for yet higher purposes, ends: You want to get to work on time so that you can get a raise; you want a raise so you can buy a better car or house, or have more options in life, etc.

The question to which Aristotle directs our attention is: Is there a purpose, or an end, or some good that we choose never for the sake of something else, or something higher, but always for its own sake? Among many human purposes, ends, and goods, is there one that is highest toward which all our choices ultimately aim?

He answers, yes, there is: Happiness. In the original Greek, the word is eudaimonia, from which we get English derivatives such as “euphoria.” While eudaimonia has been translated as “happiness” in modern English, the original word meant much more than mere fleeting feelings and emotions. 

Eudaimonia is the goal at which all human choices aim. It is the ultimate purpose, the ultimate good that human beings desire, never to satisfy other desires, never for other or higher purposes. Eudaimonia means happiness in the deep philosophic sense of a life lived well in every respect.

The next question, then, is: What does it mean to live well? Or, what is human excellence? Investigating these questions leads Aristotle to a lengthy discussion of the various virtues, including physical virtues (or excellences), moral virtues (or excellences), and intellectual virtues (or excellences). 

Aristotle emphasizes that happiness, or eudaimonia, requires not merely knowing what the virtues are, but actually doing them. Further, happiness requires exercising the virtues not once in awhile, or occasionally, but over and over, until it becomes a habit, a way of life, continuing throughout one’s life, until death. To use his example, just as one warm day does not make a summer, one act of virtue does not make a virtuous, happy person. 

We start to see that the classical teaching regarding happiness (eudaimonia) is a high and challenging goal to achieve. The happy person is the person who, at the end of his life, has been concisely courageous, wise, just, and moderate (the four cardinal virtues). The happy person is one who is caring and generous to friends, who has treated enemies in ways that fitting and right, and has cultivated relationships with others who want to help each other learn, understand, and be better human beings. The person whose life can rightfully and accurately be described as eudaimonia is someone who is never petty, who is always big-souled, who works to improve the things he can improve, and who suffers well, when afflicted with suffering beyond one’s control, rather than the opposite. 

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

For modern Americans who assume happiness is a mere fleeting, pleasurable feeling, the classical teaching of Aristotle is likely difficult to understand, or daunting when understood. 

Many are tempted to dismiss Aristotle as offering his own prejudice, no wiser than other prejudices, or to mock and ridicule Aristotle. 

Yet, when we look around us, and we observe the many who are unhappy — the many who are depressed, or addicted, or contemplating suicide — it would serve us well to ask: Are these unhappy people living lives of virtue and human excellence? Is their unhappiness the result of wise and good choices? 

If Aristotle was wrong, what alternative way of understanding happiness is better, or more conducive to human well-being?

We should also ask ourselves: Why did the Father of our Nation, George Washington, think it important to remind Americans, in the first speech he ever delivered as President, that there is woven right into human nature an “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness?” 

Can Washington, and Aristotle, help Americans today understand better what happiness is, what it requires, and how best to exercise our unalienable right to pursue happiness? 

Can a person live well, live virtuously, and achieve and enjoy a happy life, if the fellow citizens around that person are not virtuous, if they are the opposite of virtuous? Is it possible for you to encourage others to be better citizens, better people, out of their own self-interest, because as they become better, they also become happier?

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