Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

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Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.

The pettiness of our troubles

The amount of concern we take for things that do not matter is unreasonable and unnecessary, only causing us more frustration. We have, as first world societies, become too accustomed to our lifestyles, consequently and mistakenly taking them for granted. We are constantly over exaggerating, and the sense of what is important has been lost. ‘So and so hasn’t liked my Instagram photo!’ ‘The food was terrible, we’re never going there again!’ ‘I don’t have time to watch my Netflix programme!’ These are not uncommon complaints. Yet all of them become trivial when one takes oneself out of the situation. These things which we take so serious become, as Nagel puts it, gratuitous. Someone hasn’t like your post? Over 50% of the world doesn’t even have access to what you mindlessly post, and that person, contrary to what you might want to think, probably doesn’t really you or even really know you. The food was terrible? 800 million people wouldn’t even dream of such a meal. Can’t watch Netflix? Tough. Over 20,000 people die each day of poverty.

We’re all guilty at times of such complaints when we begin to take ourselves too seriously and we become too involved in what is only going on in our own lives, forgetting about the bigger picture. Of course it’s nice to enjoy some of life’s greater pleasures now and then, but to complain when certain, unreasonably hopeful, standards aren’t met is to make a mistake. Moreover, maintaining the bigger picture may both encourage us to aim towards a better future for all and allow us to appreciate the things which so many others do not have. It may be bad right now, but it could be a lot, lot worse.

What is social media for?

Social media has never been just good or just bad. It probably never will be. Nevertheless, it seems that it is becoming more detrimental both to ourselves and to those around us. The bad of social media seems to heavily outweigh the good. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that social media may in fact be a contradiction in terms. How social is social media?

Social media is, no doubt, good and useful in some respects. It enables us to keep in touch with each other, to catch up, and to let other people know how we are doing, even if we are on the other side of the world. We can meet new people through social media, and it enables us to organise meetings and group events. Moreover, opinions, ideas, and stories can be shared, discussed, and reflected upon. Useful? Of course. Worthwhile? Definitely. But this is not all. There is another side to social media.

In a society like ours, where the good is proclaimed and heralded and the bad is repressed, it is easy to tell ourselves, and each other, how great social media is. Also, given that there are so many people on it, how could it be anything but good? It is a commonly held view that to be on social media is to be connected, is to be social, and that if you are not on it, then you are missing out.

Social media is addictive. Period. Society looks down upon addiction, yet the majority of it is active in a kind of global addiction. Why is it so addictive? It may be that social media makes us feel connected, and that feeling of being part of something may provide us with some kind of high, albeit a strange one, and so we become hooked, unable to leave our phones alone for more than a few minutes.

Social media is not real. This may be another component which hooks us so easily. Social media provides us with the opportunity to create somebody different from ourselves, who is portrayed as identical with ourselves, and to attribute desirable traits to them. Social media has become a tool to alter our image and how people view us. We are enabled to flaunt the beautiful while hiding the ugly, to reveal the interesting while ignoring the boring, and to portray perfection while repressing innate imperfection. Instagram and Snapchat in particular give us the opportunity to portray our lives in the best possible light to others. But why would we ever want to do such a thing? It may be, perhaps, because we disdain imperfection, because we want to make ourselves feel better about our own lives, and maybe even to make others feel worse about theirs. In almost every photo and post there is an implicit voice which says, ‘Beat this. Yes, this is my life, and it is more interesting than yours.’ It then becomes a constant battle, a constant conflict. It is a fight for the most likes, the most follows, the best picture, the most popular video, and the nicest comments. Surely all this conflict can only lead to anxiety, fear of missing out, and grief.

The amount of time that we now spend on social media is damaging. Not just to ourselves, as we have seen, but to those around us. The more deeply we become connected in social media, the less deeply we become connected with those around us. We prefer to spend our time in a virtual world as a virtual personality surrounded by other, virtual people, rather than spending time with real people. That is the contradiction-that we are supposed to become connected, but over time we become only alienated. For the most part, the majority of people on social media don’t care what you think, have been doing, or are up to now. There will be some, of course, but not many. The people, the real people around us, however, they care. Moreover, it is no doubt true that the deepest friendships and relationships are grounded in real life, not on social media in a virtual world.

Social media indicates a desire for power, for recognition. A large part of it is just people screaming, through the means of photos and other such things, ‘look at me! Look at how great my life is!’ We may be gradually losing the ability to keep quiet, about anything. Anything that we think may be even slightly interesting, if it is only to ourselves, we shout about to others, telling each other how good it is. Must we post about our breakfast? Our day out? Our parties? Why must we, though? Fundamentally, it may be due to ourselves. It is our sense of inadequacy, and our alienation with other people. We therefore feel that we need some kind of recognition that tells us we are worth something and that we are liked. The problem, though, is that most likes are just taps of a button, and nothing deeper. Moreover, we do not feel able to have a relationship with somebody in real life, perhaps due to our own feelings of inadequacy, and so we use social media to have a relationship with that person, even if it is as shallow as the breaths you take at night, because social media allows us to hide the flaws. But, the more we do this, the more we become out of touch with our emotions, and the more we become alienated from who we really are. All of our complex and mixed, tangled emotions boil down to an emoji face. If that is not shallow, then what is? Furthermore, the time we spend on our phones results in less time with other people, and soon enough, our closest relationship is with a robot who neither cares for, nor really knows us. It is a sad situation, but not an inescapable one.

There are parts of social media which are useful and worthwhile, but as a whole, it is hard to see how social media is genuinely social.

It seems that using social media less and less would be an ideal situation. This would enable us to become truly connected with the people whom we care about and who care about us, it may allow us to become more in touch with ourselves, with who we are, what we truly desire, and what we really feel, and it may help us to realise what really matters-real relationships, with real people.

 

Aristotle and Friendship

In book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses friendship.

Friendship, Aristotle writes, is ‘one of the most indispensable requirements of life.’ We would not, he goes on to say, choose to live a life without friendship, even if we had everything else that was good. Friendship, then, is for Aristotle, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, resources for mankind.

Aristotle defines friendship and divides it into three separate groups: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of virtue.

Friendship of utility is defined as a friendship in which the two people are involved in the friendship due to the benefits they receive from it. Friendship of pleasure is defined as a friendship in which the two people are friends because of the pleasure one accrues for oneself. Aristotle would say that these two friendships are not ideal friendships, and that they seem to be fundamentally selfish.

Friendship of virtue, however, which is for Aristotle the ‘perfect form of friendship’, is ‘that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue.’ This kind of friendship, in contrast to the other two, lasts longer because it is not selfish, but because the people ‘wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake.’

There is so much that could be said about this subject, but there are perhaps some key things to take from a book worth reading:

Friendship is an act of giving, rather than an act of taking, as is also viewed today, but it appears that friendship is much more important to Aristotle than we might first think. Friendships are for Aristotle equal, and just. In an individualist society today, we tend to pursue our own interests and goals, and we allow others to chase their own interests also, even though we may at times feel that they may not be making the right choices. For Aristotle, the emphasis is community, and rather than working for oneself, we should be working for each other. This may be much easier said than done, but, if we try, with Aristotle’s view on the ‘true’ form of friendship (friendship of virtue), we may become more of a giver, rather than a taker, and may eventually find more satisfaction because not only might we form deeper, more meaningful relationships with others, we may find ourselves reaching a greater understanding of both ourselves and of others.