The pursuit of happiness has always been one of the main driving forces of human lives. This article recounts the amazing history of the concept of happiness from ancient times to today, from Aristotle’s Eudaimonia to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.
Isn’t happiness unanimously desired by every human being on Earth? Humans have strived for happiness from the very beginning. However, ‘happiness’ is one of the most variable emotions known to mankind as its meaning and the way of achieving it varies from person to person. Still, in every era philosophers have attempted to define happiness and ways to attain it. The philosophical understanding of ‘happiness’ changed through the passage of time. In the ancient world, Aristotle held virtues as the way of attaining happiness. With the commencement of the Middle Ages, philosophers like Al Ghazali and Thomas Aquinas identified the love of God as the only path to achieve happiness. In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham introduced the hedonistic approach to happiness. Furthermore, in the contemporary world, as happiness is also being promoted as a political objective, it has gained a new dimension.
Happiness through virtues
In the ancient period, Aristotle defined happiness as the chief human good in his book ‘Nicomachean Ethics’. His understanding of happiness is different from the regular connotation of the word ‘happiness’. He introduced the concept of happiness known as ‘Eudaimonia’. Eudaimonia is not concerned with the momentary happiness caused by a particular event. Instead, it implies that the person is admirable and lives life to its best. Aristotle held virtues like courage, temperance, justice, etc. to be the fundamental guides for a well-lived life. He held that a happy man is “one who exercises his faculties in accordance with perfect excellence, being duly furnished with external goods, not for any chance of time, but for a full term of years … and who shall continue to live so, and shall die as he lived.”1
Eudaimonia is not concerned with the momentary happiness caused by a particular event. It implies that the person is admirable and lives life to its best.
Moreover, Aristotle described that every ethical virtue is the intermediate state between the two extremes of that virtue. The two extremes consist of excess and deficiency of a particular virtue. For instance, the virtue of ‘courage’ is the mean between two extremes, one being ‘cowardice’ and the other being ‘foolhardiness’.
Aristotle’s theory of happiness rests on three concepts: (1) the virtues; (2) phronesis or practical wisdom; and (3) eudaimonia or flourishing.
Like Aristotle, Plato also maintained a virtue based eudaemonistic approach towards happiness. In The Republic, Plato poses two questions: “what is justice?” and “what is the relation between justice and happiness?” In the dialogue, Socrates considers justice as one of the four cardinal virtues. Plato also argued that justice is virtue and wisdom, and injustice is vice and ignorance. To answer the second question, Socrates argued that the just is better off than the unjust. The Republic establishes the relation between justice and happiness as follows:
“But furthermore, he who lives well is blessed and happy, and he who does not the contrary.” – “Of course. Then the just is happy and the unjust miserable.”2
So Plato in The Republic advocates that a just person is likely to be happier than an unjust person.
From virtues to religion
There was a huge shift in the philosophical understanding of happiness from the ancient era to the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, the love of God became the chief idea of happiness. Purification of the soul and knowledge of one’s self and God are some common aspects which can be seen in the descriptions of happiness.
The monotheism of Christianity was considered offensive against the polytheism of the Roman Empire. In the Roman Empire, Christians repeatedly faced persecution. However, the majority of Christians managed to avoid punishment and the empire failed to check the rise of Christianity. By 324, Emperor Constantine, a Christian convert, rose to power and Christianity became the state religion. The Roman people considered their Emperor as God. Christianity, however, believed in one God, who was not the emperor. This led to a weakening of the emperor’s authority and credibility. Eventually, when the Byzantine Empire emerged from the ruins of the Roman Empire, orthodox Christianity became the dominant religion. The popularity of Christianity may have contributed to the religious shift in how happiness was viewed at the time. Moreover, Christianity is predominantly based on scripture. It is noteworthy that one can easily draw parallels between Saint Augustine’s and Thomas Aquinas’ concepts of happiness and verses in the Bible.
Though St. Augustine was born in 354 AD, his work continued to be of significance in the Middle Ages as well. He held that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life and considered God as the true source of happiness as compared to the other lesser sources. He held that we are doomed to be miserable and wicked if we divert our attention from the love of God to the love of bodies. He believed that happiness is already within us and faith in God helps us to unveil it. Augustine precisely stated in De beata vita “Happy is he who has God”. A similar line of thought can be found in the Bible, John 14:20, as it states: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”. The verse implies that the believers will eventually realise the immanence of the Son in the Father, which will further lead to the appreciation of their own union with God.
In this mini-series of posts, we trace the history of the concept of love from Plato and Aristotle through the Christian world to the Desert Fathers.
Another philosopher of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, denied the possibility of perfect happiness on this Earth. However, he held that imperfect happiness is possible, which he called Felicitas. According to him, when a purified soul attains true knowledge of God, that soul will experience a pure and eternal bliss that will satisfy every human desire and demolish every sadness and worry. In his book, Summa Theologiae, he proposed that the mystical (beatific) vision of God is true happiness, which can only be achieved in the afterlife. One could find a parallel to this in the Bible, where it is written (“Sermon on the Mount”):
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The above phrases are known as ‘beatitudes’, which comes from a Latin word beatus, which means blessed or happy. They seek to assure the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers that they will be granted mercy and the view of God in the kingdom of heaven. Furthermore, in heaven, the mournful will be comforted, the hungry will be fed and they will be called sons of God.
Al Ghazali, in his book The Alchemy of Happiness, considered knowledge of the self the key to the knowledge of God; and the knowledge of God the key to happiness.
The Middle Ages were not only marked by the rise of Christianity. The era also saw the development of Islamic mysticism, popularly known as Sufism. Al Ghazali, a prominent Islamic philosopher of the Middle Ages, was a follower of and contributor to the Sufi tradition. He wrote extensively on the topic of happiness. Sufi mystics held that the way to illumination culminates in maʿrifah (“interior knowledge”) and in maḥabbah (“love”). It implied the union of lover and beloved. Self or interior knowledge and love are the central themes in the philosophy of Al Ghazali.
Al Ghazali, in his book The Alchemy of Happiness, considered knowledge of the self the key to the knowledge of God; and the knowledge of God the key to happiness. According to Al Ghazali, knowledge of the self consists in the answers to the following questions: “What art thou in thyself, and from whence hast thou come? Whither art thou going, and for what purpose hast thou come to tarry here awhile, and in what does thy real happiness and misery consist?”3 He considered love as the seed of happiness; therefore, ‘love of God’ is necessary for attaining happiness. He advocated that love of God is fostered by constant worship and remembrance of God.
From religion to hedonism
There was a shift in the idea of happiness from a religious orientation in the Middle Ages to hedonism in the eighteenth century. The term hedonism comes from the Greek word hēdonē, which means pleasure. Hedonism advocates that pleasure and pain are the two most important elements of human life and human behaviour must be guided in such a way that it increases pleasure and decreases pain.
The 18th century saw the industrial revolution in Europe, which was marked by the rise of materialism, hints of which can be found in the concept of hedonism. Jeremy Bentham was the pioneer of hedonism in which wealth was one of the elements of measuring happiness. Bentham held that “Of two individuals with unequal fortunes, he who has the most wealth has the most happiness”.4 However, he was conscious of the limitations of this approach. He thought that the successive addition to the wealth of a rich person will not result in the addition of pleasure of the same amount every time. The addition of pleasure or happiness will decrease with every successive addition, so that a poor person will profit more than a rich one from being given a particular sum of money.
Bentham introduced the ‘hedonic calculus’ to measure the amount of pleasure a specific action is likely to produce. The calculus was based on intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and the extent (reach) of an action.
Bentham was also a political reformer. Therefore, his idea of happiness was also modelled on good governance, laws and social utility. Bentham proposed that the government should apply the hedonic calculus in its decision making, and thus achieve the good (happiness or pleasure) for many and pain for few. In his later writings, he related the idea of happiness to personal security, enhanced health facilities, lower crime rates, education, and keeping check on diseases caused by sewage pollution.
The 18th century also witnessed the French revolution in 1789. The aim of the revolution was to overthrow monarchy in order to establish a republican regime and to achieve the equality of all citizens. Bentham agreed with these goals of the French Revolution, and the notion of equality is immanent in the idea of happiness proposed by Bentham. He held that “when one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else’s good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me.”5
Another adherent of hedonism, John Stuart Mill held that “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”6 He went along with most of Bentham’s ideas on happiness. However, he introduced a qualitative distinction of different types of pleasures, which was lacking in Bentham’s hedonism. He thought that intellectual pleasures such as ‘learning’ occupy a higher position than sensual pleasures such as eating and drinking. He believed that it was better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Mill also assumed that everyone’s happiness counted the same, as he argued that the principle of utility “is a mere form of words without rational signification, unless one person’s happiness, supposed equal in degree …, is counted for exactly as much as another’s.”7
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Back to virtues
With the advent of the 20th century, criticisms of hedonism emerged and Aristotelian philosophy became popular again. Moreover, happiness was now being promoted as a political goal.
Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe has been credited with the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics in the modern era. Her essay Modern Moral Philosophy, which was published in 1958, revitalized the interest in virtue ethics in Western academic philosophy, and Aristotelian philosophy got popularised in the following years. She criticized the hedonistic approach to happiness by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill as a hopelessly simplistic notion of happiness.
The perhaps most prominent critic of hedonism of the 20th century was Robert Nozick. He put forward the ‘Experience Machine’ thought experiment in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia in 1974. In the experiment, Nozick gives us the option of plugging up into a machine for life, which will flawlessly create a string of utmost happy experiences. Most importantly, once plugged in, one will not be conscious of being plugged into the machine. For the person inside the machines, all the experiences they make will feel real. Most people rejected being plugged into the machine as they agreed with Nozick that living in reality is far more important than living an unreal pleasurable life.
In the thought experiment, Nozick gives us the option of plugging up into a machine for life, which will flawlessly create a string of utmost happy experiences.
Another concept of happiness, based on whole life satisfaction, was proposed by Władysław Tatarkiewicz. In his book Analysis of Happiness, he held that in antiquity philosophers associated happiness with the possession of some particular highest good, whether wealth, qualities or virtues. He advocated that for a person to be happy, they must be satisfied with their lives as a whole. He noted that every kind of happiness leads to satisfaction but that not every kind of satisfaction leads to happiness. Partial satisfaction cannot bring happiness. Only full satisfaction with one’s life will cause one to be happy. Moreover, Tatarkiewicz stressed that one must be satisfied with both the past and the future expectations of one’s life, in addition to the way one’s life is in the present.
Happiness as a political goal
Towards the end of the twentieth century, happiness began to be promoted as a political goal. Several indices were introduced for measuring the happiness of the citizens of a country. One such index is the Gross National Happiness Index. The term ‘Gross National Happiness’ was coined in 1976 by the then King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He held that the Gross National Happiness of a country is more important than its Gross Domestic Product. The GNH is an approach towards development which balances both materialistic and non-materialistic values with the belief that the ultimate end of humans is happiness. It is one the most popular attempts to objectify the notion of happiness. The GNH consists of nine domains to assess happiness: psychological well-being, time use, health, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience and living standards.
The term ‘Gross National Happiness’ was coined in 1976 by the then King of Bhutan. He held that the Gross National Happiness of a country is more important than its Gross Domestic Product.
In 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution titled Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development and appealed to its member states to measure the happiness of their people and to use the data to improve public policies.
Even if the government of a nation does not consider promoting happiness as a moral obligation, it does have an interest in gaining popular support and maximizing the happiness of the people in the country. Furthermore, a government’s control over institutional and social factors, which play a significant role in ensuring the happiness of people, has made the government’s role indispensable in promoting happiness.
The philosophical understanding of happiness has been subjected to change through the passage of time. Events from within as well as from outside the philosophical world have affected the definition of happiness in every era. There cannot be a universal definition of happiness. A virtuous person would be happy if they are living their life in accordance with their morals; an acquisitive person would be happy if they are making a fortune; and a monk or nun would be happy if they are entirely immersed in the devotion of God. The way of attaining happiness might differ between persons to the extent that the happiness of one can be misery for the other. An extrovert would be happy in a group of people while, on the other hand, being amongst many people would be a misery for an introvert. Therefore, everyone’s happiness cannot be put in the same mould. It is still true and widely held, however, that happiness is the ultimate end of every human action and that it is unanimously sought by everyone.
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Kunal Kashyap is an independent researcher and a philosophy graduate of the University of Delhi, India. Inspired by the ideas of Buddha and Kant at an early age, he holds a keen interest in the field of moral philosophy and is currently undertaking research on the relationship between religion and morality. Homepage: https://about.me/kkashyap
Cover image: Dreamstudio.ai with prompt “Ancient Greek temple in Picasso style cubist colorful.” – Church window prompt: “church window stained glass with light shining through it showing a scene from the Bible colorful on a dark background.” – Picasso people prompt: “two happy friends hugging each other picasso colourful style.” Learn more about AI art in our article “Stunning AI-Generated Art.”
F. H PETERS, The Nicomachean Ethics Of Aristotle, 10th ed. (repr., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1906), 27. ↩︎