The word ‘happiness’ carries multiple nuances that have risen and fallen in significance through time and in diverse cultures and subcultures. Surveying the intellectual history of Western civilization discloses that individual 'happiness' can refer to two distinct though related phenomena. First, ‘happiness’ describes pleasure in the moment: such as feeling happy after having received a compliment, or enjoying a beautiful sunset. In this sense, happiness is a qualitative state of mind, and often of short temporal duration. The second use of the word, and the one that is of the most interest to philosophers, is a long term or overall sense of faring well, of leading or having led a happy life. These two senses of happiness are contrasted in the phrases “I feel happy” as opposed to “I am happy.”
In a socio-politico-economic sense, happiness is a property of the social collective or the body politic as expressed in the terms 'civil happiness' and 'public happiness.' Considered by many leaders of the eighteenth century to entail the essential meaning of happiness, the collective aspect of happiness was largely absent from political and economic theory in the twentieth century. To a Sufi, a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Christian mystic, the ultimate happiness arises from the merger of individual self with the cosmic divinity, while even apart from mystical practice the surrender of self to God in Christ has promised happiness to Christians since the time of Saint Augustine.
From Plato (c. 428 B.C.E. – c. 348 B.C.E.) to John Stuart Mill and beyond, the concept of happiness has been of interest and importance to ethical theory. In ancient Greek ethics, living a virtuous, or ethically sound, life was (outside influences not withstanding) the path to eudaimonia (loosely translated as happiness). In Utilitarian ethics, overall happiness is the end to which we should aspire and actions that bring about the greatest happiness for all concerned are considered to be right. In other words, for the Greeks virtue was a path to happiness, whereas for the Utilitarians happiness is the benchmark along which right (correct) action is judged.
In more recent developments, in philosophy, there has been a move away from investigation into happiness but rather into that of well-being, a term that many (from both the objective and subjective schools of thought) regard as less ambiguous than happiness. The new school of positive psychology, in contrast, accords great significance to happiness as an overarching concept while also developing several different approaches toward measuring aspects of happiness.
Aristotle’s views on happiness have proved to be influential down to the present day. Aristotle’s basic thought is that happiness (eudaimonia)—living well—depends on a creature’s perfecting its natural endowments. He argues that reason is unique to man so that the function (ergon) of a human being will involve the exercise and perfection of its rational capacities. It follows that the good life for man involves the attainment of virtue or excellence (arête) in reason. Aristotle divides the human excellences (aretai—often translated as ‘virtues’) connected with reason into two groups: moral and intellectual excellence. (He also recognizes bodily excellence (virtue) but this is exclusively non-rational and so does not contribute to a distinctively human (rather than animal) good.) Moral excellences are excellences of character and pertain to action, including dispositions to feel emotions (such as fear) and make certain types of choices. Intellectual excellences (virtues) are excellences of thought including such states as wisdom and intelligence. In general, his claim is that the virtues of character and intellect are ways of perfecting reason and hence indispensable to the good human life. However, although Aristotle emphasizes the importance of cultivating one’s rational capacities, he does not neglect the importance of friends, wealth, and social status in a good life. He says that one is unlikely to be happy if one lacks certain external goods such as ‘good birth, good children, and beauty’. So, a person who is extremely ugly, or has “lost children or good friends through death” (1099b5-6), or who is all alone, is unlikely to be happy. Virtue does not guarantee a happy life, or in other words virtue is necessary, but not sufficient for happiness.
The Stoics on the other hand took Aristotle’s views one step further by claiming that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. Stoic philosophy begins with Zeno of Citium (334 B.C.E.-262 B.C.E.) and was further developed by Cleanthes and Chrysippus. A basic assumption of Stoic thinking is that the universe itself is governed by laws of reason, and structured in the best possible way. This metaphysical thesis is connected with the ethical view that the good life is one that is lived in accordance with reason. Moral goodness and happiness are attained by mirroring the perfect rationality of the world in oneself and by finding out and living one’s own assigned role in the cosmic order of things.
To many, the above theories would seem intuitively wrong. It can be claimed that there are many vicious people who appear quite happy, or that many virtuous people seem quite unhappy (the latter being a problem with the Stoic’s view rather than Aristotle’s). This has led some to question whether happiness is an adequate translation of eudaimonia, and that perhaps a term such as ‘well-being’ would be better suited, as the latter implies a more objective long-term view.
Later Greek ethical thought is conducted within the Platonic/Aristotelian framework. It is generally agreed that happiness (eudaimonia) is the ultimate human good, and living a good life will involve cultivating and exercising virtues. Epicurus departs from Plato and Aristotle in that his view of eudaimonia is hedonistic. He identifies the eudaimon life with the life of pleasure, understanding eudaimonia as a more or less continuous experience of the pleasure, and also, freedom from pain and distress (ataraxia). But Epicurus does not advocate that one pursue any and every pleasure. Rather, he recommends a policy whereby pleasures are optimised in the long run. Some pleasures are not worth having because they lead to greater pains, and some pains are worthwhile when they lead to greater pleasures. The best strategy for attaining a maximal amount of pleasure overall is not to seek instant gratification but to work out a sensible long term policy.
Epicurus argues that the life of pleasure will coincide with the life of virtue. He believes that we do and ought to seek virtue because virtue brings pleasure. His basic doctrine is that a life of virtue is the life which generates the most amount of pleasure, and it is for this reason that we ought to be virtuous. Famously attributed with the “friends, freedom and thought” path to happiness, he claims that a life of pleasure and absence of pain is what happiness consists in.
Thomas Aquinas developed and extended Aristotle’s ethical theory, a eudaimonistic account of the human good and a focus on virtues rather than discrete actions, into a Christian context. As discussed in the previous section, ancient philosophers agreed that happiness (eudaimonia) is the highest human good—the goal of human existence—and that virtue (arête) is in some way essential for one’s achieving this goal. Aquinas’ adaptation of this idea amounts to his identifying God—the exemplification of perfect goodness—as the goal of human life. Eudaimonia is transposed into perfect happiness (beatitude) conceived as union with God in the afterlife.
The second basic assumption Aquinas inherits from Aristotle is the importance of virtues in perfecting the rational nature of man, and hence their crucial significance in achieving eudaimonia. Here again Aquinas transposes Aristotle’s largely naturalistic theory into a theological context. Aristotle held that the cultivation and exercise of intellectual and moral virtues are the most important components in a good human life. But this conception of a good life is largely that of a biological organism living according to its distinctive endowments. Therefore, given Aquinas’ departure from Aristotle on the final goal of human life, that is, his identifying man’s ultimate end with supernatural union with God, he is required to give some explanation of the relationship between the perfection of man’s natural powers, and his achieving perfect happiness in a supernatural afterlife. To fill this gap, Aquinas introduces the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which have God as their immediate object. According to Aquinas, non-Christians cannot display theological virtues, although they can manifest other non-theological virtues such as courage. Therefore, while heathens are capable of eudaimonia in Arisotle’s sense, they are not capable of beatitude, which requires the theological virtues. One important difference between the ‘natural virtues’ and the theological virtues is that the former are within the agent’s power to cultivate and develop. On Aristotle’s analysis, which Aquinas adopts, character virtues such as courage are developed through training. By contrast, theological virtues depend on God’s help in the form of divine grace. Faith, hope, and love are not acquired through voluntary actions but are directly infused by God. (Aquinas’ discussion of the virtues is found in Summa Theologiae IaIIae 49-88 and throughout IIaIIae.)
For the classical utilitarians (most notably Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), happiness can be described as pleasure and the absence of pain. Individual happiness then, is the accumulation of happy episodes (as in the first sense of happiness discussed above) outweighing painful ones. A happy life would then consist of a series of pleasurable episodes with few painful ones. Utilitarianism deviates greatly from the previously discussed theories in that it maintains that an act is deemed right in virtue of its consequences or results, and that the right is the one which brings about the most overall happiness. This famous Principle of Utility is, in Bentham’s formulation: “By the Principle of Utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have … to promote or to oppose that happiness.” Similarly, in Mill’s formulation, Utilitarianism “the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” For utilitarianism then, morality is about increasing the amount of happiness in the world.
Both Bentham and Mill equated happiness with pleasure and in this sense both were hedonists. Bentham believed any particular pleasure or pain has a determinate value, which can be measured, and compared. He attempted to construct a scale of comparison and measurement of pain and pleasure. He called this scale the felicific calculus. He claimed that the value of a pleasure is to be determined by such factors as its duration and its intensity. Bentham’s hedonism may be labeled quantitative hedonism, since all pleasures and pains appear on the same scale, being measured according to the same set of criteria (such as duration and intensity). In contrast with Bentham for whom all pleasures were alike and comparable, Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. “…Some pleasures are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.” Higher pleasures (also called ‘informed pleasures’) include pleasures of the human mind: pleasures of the intellect, imagination, appreciation of beauty, and others. According to Mill, these higher pleasures are vastly superior to lower pleasures of the body or “mere sensations.” They are different in quality, not just quantity.
The hedonism in classical utilitarianism has been widely criticized since Mill’s time. Some argue that utilitarianism’s adding and weighing up of pleasurable and painful episodes in judging happiness is problematic because it leaves out the value of achieving long-term goals—which many regard as a vital ingredient for happiness. However, utilitarianism’s basic idea—that morality is about increasing the amount of good in the world—has remained attractive. Utilitarianism has undergone substantial refinements and has continued to be one of the dominant moral theories up until the present day.
Although the hedonism of classical utilitarian theory has become increasingly unpopular amongst philosophers, positive psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Ed Diener have continued to find it a fruitful area of research. So it is in the domain of contemporary psychology that the theories of classical utilitarians, whose theories reduced happiness to positive and negative affect, are defended and further explored.
Some positive psychologists, attracted to the subjective framework in which the utilitarians operated, but not convinced by their hedonistic theories, have advanced a conception of happiness as "life-satisfaction." On this view, the notion of well-being captures the notion of long term assessment of happiness, and the subjective experience of happiness is simply conceived as one part of well-being. Life satisfaction is achieved by accomplishing what we deem most important in life (hence also known as the "list account"). Life satisfaction remains subjective as well-being is based on one’s view on how one's life is going, a judgment rather than a feeling. How one judges how one is faring is somewhat more problematic. As aspirations are so bound up with expectations, it is reasonable to ask whether we are good judges of our own happiness. For certain societies expectations would be much lower, and what a slave regards as a good life vastly different from that of a slave owner. Some have argued that we are only in a position to assess our own well-being when we are both informed and autonomous, which implies that contentment is therefore not the same as overall well-being. Others have argued that we should judge or assess objectively whether a life has been happy or good by using indicators that have independent value, thus imposing an objective assessment on a subjective theory.
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