What Is Happiness? Why Does It Matter?

Are you happy? In the moment? For the future? Not for much of the time, maybe? Or maybe not at all? The answers to these questions may lead to some new kind of understanding, about happiness, about what is important, about what is worth living for.

Happiness can mean different things to different people. A few philosophers argue in favor of the happiness ideal with a more metaphysical viewpoint, but they are wrong: no matter your metaphysical leanings, what’s important to happiness isn’t a metaphysical argument for or against anything, but simply the state of mind that feels at peace.


The “analogous” (that is, “common”) kind of happiness Aristotle discusses is a kind of happiness that makes people more capable of living in accordance with their ethical ideals. These ideals are expressed for people in two ways: by way of an intrinsic motivation by which they strive for them—that is, an ideal in addition to the goals they aim at—and by way of an instrumental motivation by which they live up to those ideals —that is, means to attain those goals while living.

As Aristotelean metaphysics allows, these ways of life are in opposition to one another and not a harmonious blend of them. For example, one person may pursue happiness by virtue of an intrinsic motivation, but at the same time his goal is to earn a living and so he will work for that means to meet his goal. This person is happy because he is not satisfied with the means to his ends. In contrast, someone who pursues happiness through an instrumental motivation will have no desire for either an intrinsic or instrumental motivation.

One type of virtue may be “eternal,” that is, a type of virtue that does not change in the course of living. The virtuous person has all the virtue we could want and has lived an exemplary life in all aspects of his life, but he does not have a desire for virtue. “Good” is an ideal; so are its ends (such as happiness).

So we can easily see that Aristotelean ethics sees happiness as a matter of a sort that is “eternal” in some regard or another. But what does that mean for happiness in the world? We can see there are two sorts of happiness. One sort is the kind I discussed earlier, that is eternal. It consists of an ideal for which we have reason to strive, which we reach in a harmonious blend and which we live up to. In the other sort of happiness, Aristotle describes an “abstract” one; a kind of happiness that is not to the taste of some of us but not necessarily “nothing” in the world, the kind of happiness that comes in and of itself, even though it is not an ideal or ultimate goal in any way. For instance, people can and often do have this kind of happiness in the world without being virtuous, without being virtuous in accordance with a particular moral ideal, but in which they enjoy a certain kind of “freedom” —whether living in accordance with a particular philosophical point of view or not.

One of the most important characteristics that makes “abstract” happiness rare and valuable, compared with “eternal” happiness, is that it can be obtained with little effort and is self-sufficing, self-sufficient. For instance, a person with this kind of happiness in the world can take pleasure in the present and do things in it without feeling the need to find some future benefit out of it. A “bad” person would not enjoy, or at least not in the same way, what he would with this sort of happiness, i.e., with the same freedom and self-sufficiency that are also part of “good” (i.e. eternal) happiness.