Aristotle and the Pursuit of Happiness

Thomas Jefferson is given the credit for penning the words in the Constitution of The United States of America stating that one of the basic rights of its citizens is “the pursuit of happiness”. Unfortunately it was a wrong-minded notion. It implied that if they tried hard enough any person (or at least a citizen of USA, excluding women and slaves at that time) could be happy. So, there goes happiness – if I run fast enough I can catch it!

In contrast to the current impecunious and troubled Greece of today, ancient Greece led the world with its concepts of philosophy, politics and citizenship. Many would argue that modern democracies owe much to the developments of these concepts over two millennia ago. A major figure in these developments was Plato’s famous pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle has a lot to say about happiness and if we take the time to analyse his thoughts we will see how marvellously prescient he was. Many of his principles have been rediscovered by philosophers and psychologist in the last century.

Aristotle believed that humans were essentially animals that had some divine traits. Enigmatically they were simultaneously beastly and god-like. He preached that happiness did not derive from satisfying humankind’s beastly desires but by giving scope to the development of their god-like traits. The expression of a human beings highest virtue lay in the fields of philosophy and politics. Aristotle’s definitions of “philosophy” and “politics” were much broader than modern usage suggests. Philosophy, as he understood it, was the use of reason and argument to seek the truth about reality and to him this included mathematics, natural and physical sciences and the knowledge base of all the major profession and the arts. To Aristotle the most uplifting activity we could indulge in was contemplation. This is what we shared with the gods. Indeed, he believed contemplation was how the gods used their leisure time. Politics was the endeavour we could make to contribute to society. It was in essence our contribution to the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Thus he argued, attending to our animal needs and desires might bring short term pleasure but it was only by engaging our god-like traits could we really secure enduring happiness.

If we fast forward now a couple of thousand years to the 1960’s we come across some influential work by a couple of American psychologists.

The first of these was Frederick Herzberg. After interviewing many employees about their work and what motivated them he came up with his two-factor theory of motivation. Essentially he hypothesised that employees were unhappy in the workplace if their basic “hygiene” factors weren’t attended to. These included such things as salary, working conditions, work-relationships, fringe benefits etc. But interestingly, he posited that whilst a deficit in such benefits caused workers to be dissatisfied no amount of such benefits was motivational. What motivated people were the intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as challenging work, recognition, achievement and personal growth.

It is beginning to look like Aristotle’s dichotomy of needing to meet our “beastly” needs to be satisfied but having to meet our “god-like” needs to be happy!

Just preceding Herzberg was Abraham Maslow. Maslow was a precursor to the “Positive Psychology” movement initiated by Martin Seligman in the 1990’s. Most psychologists work with people who display problems with their psychological functioning and seek to help them suffer less. Maslow instead studied exemplar human beings to try and find out how normal people, people without any obvious psychological pathology, might live even better lives.

Maslow posited that human beings were subject to a hierarchy of needs. A person needed to have basic needs at one level reasonably addressed before he or she could attend to the needs at the next level.

The pyramid below represents his hierarchy. Starting at the base, needs at each level need to be met to an adequate level before a person becomes to be engaged with the demands of the next level.

Again, it seems similar to Aristotle’s proposal that we must address our animal needs before we can move to the more satisfying process of dealing with our higher order needs.

If we look at the research outcomes of the doyen of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, we will note that he finds that our long term sense of well-being is enhanced by pursuing our signature strengths. These are the very propensities that Aristotle called virtues that we needed to engage to fulfil our potential in the political and philosophical spheres. Seligman also finds that we are more likely to find enduring happiness if we are devoted to a cause greater than ourselves. This was exactly what Aristotle had in mind when he promoted the pursuit of political virtues. For him politics was about working for the community at large, to advance the cause of our fellow citizens rather than our own.

Finally, the Hungarian born, US resident psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, tells us that peak human performance and a profound sense of well-being occurs when we enter the state he calls “flow”. Flow is the ineffable feeling people have when they are so absorbed in what they are doing that they lose track of time and place. Skilled athletes call this being “in the zone”. Aristotle believed this happened to us when we pursue our higher virtues, those god-like characteristics that we encounter when we are trying to fulfil our highest potentials. He taught the Athenian leaders the importance of developing the capacity to engage in the disciplined exploration of profound questions – ones that illuminate basic truths and examine fundamental questions about the human condition.

Now I don’t want to strain the parallels between Aristotle’s thinking and the conclusions we have relatively recently come to regarding happiness, but nevertheless his thoughts are surprisingly insightful in the face of modern research.

However to go back to my starting point, it seems unlikely to me that anyone might achieve happiness by seeking it out directly. Let me share with you the insights of John Stuart Mill which seems to me to sum up the issue quite nicely. He said:

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness – on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit. Aiming thus at something else they find happiness by the way.”

Previous blogs have addressed this and there are chapters in my little book, “Augustus Finds Serenity” expanding on these notions.

But don’t get too excited in the pursuit of happiness – because, after all, happiness can’t buy you money!

10 Replies to “Aristotle and the Pursuit of Happiness”

  1. Thanks Ted,

    Coincidentally, just finishing off a book by Daniel Pink titled “Drive” that follows the same progression – and links it in with how to motivate people in the workplace (i.e. by using intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation).

    Very useful for us, given where we are at as a company.

    Pink mentions the concept of “flow” popularised by Csikszentmihalyi, along with the work done by others like Deci and Ryan (who I think you reference in your other book).

    For a teaser on the book, see his TED lecture I posted about here.



  2. As a modern day philosopher Ted you’ve certainly provided some interesting thoughts in this article.

    The one that really grabbed me was the comment about contemplation being the leisure pursuit of the gods. I wished I knew about that one when I was a school-kid woken out of my contemplation by my teachers accusing me of day dreaming. How dare they!!

    I’m currently doing quite a bit of contemplation as I struggle to stay perched at the top of my heirarchy of needs due to unchosen changes at my workplace. I’d be interested in your thoughts on unchosen change in a future column please Ted.



  3. Thanks Paul for your reference. And yes the book by Deci & Ryan is probably the most comprehensive book on human motivation I’ve come across.

    John thanks for your comment. I will endeavour to write something on coping with change in the next little while. It is commonly known that the change itself is not so stressful, it is the fact that we seem powerless to influence it. Being able to develop personal options and having good social networks of personal support seem to be the easiest (and often the most effective) ways of dealing with it. It seems knowing you have options, even if you don’t exercisethem, removes much of the stress from such situations.

  4. And I think it was John Lennon who said:

    ‘Life is what happens while you are making other plans’

  5. Ted, I read a paper of yours a few years back on the compound brain of humans (the concept that we have several brains rolled into one). The more primitive brains we have in common with other animals provide the drives that often seem to give us short term happiness. I seem to recall that most of these drives seemed to begin with “F”. The big frontal lobes of the brain though are a uniquely human component and it seems to me that it is this part of the brain that is associated with true happiness. Physically it seems that when we use self control (the frontal lobes overcoming the lower animal components of our brain) for the greater good rather than the individual good is when we inadvertently get the side benefit of that as yet undefined thing called happiness.

    Perhaps you could dredge through your all papers and give a more anatomical analysis of happiness at some future time.

    Thanks. Ted.

  6. Greg, the idea came to me through the writings of Arthur Koestler. I remember reading one of his book almost forty years ago (I can’t recall which one) where he postulated that the principal dilemma for mankind emanated from the fact that his new brain (the neo-mammalian cortex)was improperly connected to the older brain parts. He hypothesised that this was due to its rapid growth. Most of the cerebral cortex has been laid down in the last 200,000 -300,000 years, which is but an instant in evolutionary time. Consequently, he concluded, our passions over-ride our reason.

    Neuro-scientists today would not concede so readily that the inputs from the older brain elements should be so discounted. However appropriate integration of the various inputs is necessary for optimal function.

    The scientist and psychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, in his book “The Mindful Brain” makes a good case that the practice that Buddhists call “mindfulness” aids such integration and facilitates human well-being as a consequence.

  7. Greg

    We have no idea of the destination.

    I recall an advertising billboard in California featuring the latest visit of a prominent guru.

    He was standing in the ‘Tree Pose’

    On a surfboard.

    The capitation read:

    “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”

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