What Is Happiness?

This article covers the answer to the question: “What Is Happiness?

The primary meaning of this term in all the leading European languages seems to involve the notion of good fortune, good chance, good happening; but from a very early date in the history of Greek philosophy the conception became the centre of keen speculation and dispute.

What is happiness?
What are its constituents?
What are the causes and conditions of happiness?
How, if at all, does it differ from pleasure?
What are its relations to man’s intellect, to his will, to his life as a whole? What is its position in a general theory of the universe?

These are questions which have much occupied the various schools of philosophy and, indeed, have exercised men who would not be willingly accused of philosophizing. For happiness is necessarily amongst the most profoundly interesting subjects for all of us. With the Greeks interest in the problem was mainly ethical, the psychology of happiness being ancillary; whereas for several modern schools of philosophy psychology is deemed the key to many of the most important queries respecting this familiar yet enigmatic conception.

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Happy Child

Dismissing the view that happiness was a lot arbitrarily bestowed by capricious Fortune, the more serious thinkers among the Greeks regarded it as a gift of the gods. Further reflection led to the view that it was given as a reward for goodness of life. Hence the acquisition of happiness depends on the working out of the good for man in man’s life. What then is the good? For Socrates it is eupraxia, which receives closer definition at the hands of Plato, as such harmonious functioning of the parts of man’s soul as shall preserve the subordination of the lower to the higher, of the non-rational to the rational. In this view happiness becomes for Plato less the reward than the inevitable concomitant of such harmony. It is the property of the whole soul; and the demand of any element of the soul for preferential treatment in the matter of happiness Plato would thus look upon as unreasonable. In setting happiness as the intrinsic result of a policy of “following nature”, the Stoics and the Cyrenaics were in verbal agreement with Plato, though diverging to opposite poles in their answer to the psychological question as to the constituents of happiness. “Follow Nature”, for the Cyrenaics, meant: “Gratify the sensuous faculties which are the voices of nature.” For the Stoics it signified: “Satisfy your reason which nature bids us to exalt by the entire suppression of our sensuous appetites.” Happiness is for these latter the consequence of the virtuous life which issues in spiritual freedom and peace.

In Aristotle’s ethical system, happiness, as expressed by eudaimonia, is the central idea. He agrees with Plato in rejecting the exaggerated opposition set up between reason and nature by the Sophists, and fundamental to both the Stoic and Epicurean schools. For Aristotle, nature is human nature as a whole. This is both rational and sensuous. His treatment of happiness is in closer contact with experience than that of Plato. The good with which he concerns himself is that which it is possible for man to reach in this life. This highest good is happiness. This must be the true purpose of life; for we seek it in all our actions. But in what does it consist? Not in mere passive enjoyment, for this is open to the brute, but in action (energeia), of the kind that is proper to man in contrast with other animals. This is intellectual action. Not all kinds of intellectual action, however, result in happiness, but only virtuous action, that is, action which springs from virtue and is according to its laws; for this alone is appropriate to the nature of man. The highest happiness corresponds to the highest virtue; it is the best activity of the highest faculty. Though happiness does not consist in pleasure, it does not exclude pleasure. On the contrary, the highest form of pleasure is the outcome of virtuous action. But for such happiness to be complete it should be continued during a life of average length in at least moderately comfortable circumstances, and enriched by intercourse with friends. Aristotle is distinctly human here. Virtues are either ethical or dianoetic (intellectual). The latter pertain either to the practical or to the speculative reason. This last is the highest faculty of all; hence the highest virtue is a habit of the speculative reason. Consequently, for Aristotle the highest happiness is to be found not in the ethical virtues of the active life, but in the contemplative or philosophic life of speculation, in which the dianoetic virtues of understanding, science, and wisdom are exercised. Theoria, or pure speculation, is the highest activity of man, and that by which he is most like unto the gods; for in this, too, the happiness of the gods consists. It is, in a sense, a Divine life. Only the few, however, can attain to it; the great majority must be content with the inferior happiness of the active life. Happiness (eudaimonia), therefore with Aristotle, is not identical with pleasure (hedone), or even with the sum of pleasures. It has been described as the kind of well-being that consists in well-doing; and supreme happiness is thus the well-doing of the best faculty. Pleasure is a concomitant or efflorescence of such an activity.

Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez

Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez

Here, then, is in brief Aristotle’s ethical theory of eudemonism; and in its main features it has been made the basis of the chief Christian scheme of moral philosophy. Constituting happiness the end of human action, and not looking beyond the present life, Aristotle’s system, it has been maintained with some show of reason, approximates, after all, in sundry important respects towards Utilitarianism or refined Hedonism. This is not the place to determine precisely Aristotle’s ethical position, but we may point out that his conception of happiness (eudaimonia) is not identical with felicity — the maximum sum of pleasures — which forms the supreme end of human conduct for modern hedonistic schools. It is rather in his failure to perceive clearly the proper object of man’s highest faculty, on the one hand, and, on the other, his limitation of the attainment of this proper end of man to a handful of philosophers, that the most serious deficiency in this part of his doctrine lies. It is here that the leading Schoolmen, enlightened by Christian Revelation and taking over some elements from Plato, come to complete the Peripatetic theory. St. Thomas teaches that beatitudo, perfect happiness, is the true supreme, subjective end of man, and is, therefore, open to all men, but is not attainable in this life. It consists in the best exercise of the noblest human faculty, the intellect, on the one object of infinite worth. It is, in fact, the outcome of the immediate possession of God by intellectual contemplation. Scotus and some other Scholastic writers accentuate the importance of the will in the process, and insist on the love resulting from the contemplative activity of the intellect, as a main factor; but it is allowed by all Catholic schools that both faculties play their part in the operation which is to constitute at once man’s highest perfection and supreme felicity. “Our heart is ill at ease till it find rest in Thee” was the cry of St. Augustine. “The possession of God is happiness essential.” “To know God is life everlasting.” With all Christian writers true happiness is to come not now, but hereafter. Then the bonum perfectum quod totaliter quietat appetitum (the perfect good that completely satisfies desire) can be immediately enjoyed without let or hindrance, and that enjoyment will not be a state of inactive quiescence or Nirvana, but of intense, though free and peaceful, activity of the soul.

The divorce of philosophy from theology since Descartes has, outside of Catholic schools of thought, caused a marked disinclination to recognize the importance in ethical theory of the future life with its rewards and punishments. Consequently, for those philosophers who constitute happiness — whether of the individual or of the community — the ethical end, the psychological analysis of the constituents of temporal felicity, has become a main problem. In general, such writers identify happiness with pleasure, though some lay considerable stress on the difference between higher and lower pleasures, whilst others emphasize the importance of active, in opposition to passive, pleasures. The poet Pope tells us, “Happiness lies in three words: Peace, Health, Content”. Reflection, however, suggests that these are rather the chief negative condition, than the positive constituents of happiness. Paley, although adopting a species of theological Utilitarianism in which the will of God is the rule of morality, and the rewards and punishments of the future life the chief part of the motive for moral conduct, yet has written a celebrated chapter on temporal happiness embodying a considerable amount of shrewd, worldly common sense. He argues that happiness does not consist in the pleasures of sense, whether the coarser, such as eating, or the more refined, such as music, the drama, or sports, for these pall by repetition. Intense delights disappoint and destroy relish for normal pleasures. Nor does happiness consist in exemption from pain, labour, or business; nor in the possession of rank or station, which do not exclude pain and discomfort. The most important point in the conduct of life is, then, to select pleasures that will endure. Owing to diversity of taste and individual aptitudes, there is necessarily much variety in the objects which produce human happiness. Among the chief are, he argues, the exercise of family and social affections, the activity of our faculties, mental and bodily, in pursuit of some engaging end, that of the next life included, a prudent constitution of our habits and good health, bodily and mental. His conclusion is that the conditions of human happiness are “pretty equally distributed among the different orders of society, and that vice has at all events no advantage over virtue even with respect to this world’s happiness”. For Bentham, who is the most consistent among English Hedonists in his treatment of this topic, happiness is the sum of pleasures. Its value is measured by quantity: “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.” Rejecting all distinctions of higher or lower quality, he formulates these tests of the worth of pleasure as an integral part of happiness:

(1) its intensity,
(2) duration,
(3) propinquity,
(4) purity, or freedom from pain,
(5) fecundity,
(6) range.

J. Stuart Mill, whilst defining happiness as “pleasure and absence of pain”, and unhappiness as “pain and privation of pleasure”, insists as a most important point that “quality must be considered as well as quantity“, and some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others on grounds other than their pleasantness. “It is better”, he urges, “to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” This is true; but it is an inconsistent admission fatal to Mill’s whole position as a Hedonist, and to the Hedonistic conception of happiness.

The aid of the evolutionist hypothesis here as elsewhere was called to the support of the Sensationist school of psychology and ethics. Pleasure must be life-giving, pain the reverse. The survival of the pleasure fittest to survive will, according to Herbert Spencer, lead to an ultimate well-being not of the individual, but of the social organism; and the perfect health of the organism will be the concomitant of its perfect functioning, that is, of its perfect virtue. Thus happiness is defined in terms of virtue, but of a virtue which is a mere physical or physiological excellence. Spencer’s critics, however, have been keen to point out that the pleasure of an activity in man is not by any means a safe criterion of its healthiness or conduciveness to enduring well-being. In the writings of the German Rationalists from Kant onwards we meet echoes of the ancient Stoicism. Usually there is too narrow a view of human nature, and at times an effort to set aside the question of happiness as having no real bearing on ethical problems. Kant is inclined to an over-ready acceptance of the Hedonistic identification of happiness with sensuous pleasure, and for this reason he is opposed to our working for our own happiness whilst he allows us to seek that of others. His rigoristic exclusion of happiness from among the motives for moral action is psychologically as well as ethically unsound, and although “Duty for duty’s sake” may be an elevating and ennobling hortatory formula, still the reflective reason of man affirms unequivocally that unless virtue finally results in happiness, that unless it be ultimately happier for the man who observes the moral law than for him who violates it, human existence would be irrational at the very core, and life not worth living. This latter, indeed, is the logical conclusion of Pessimism, which teaches that misery altogether outweighs happiness in the universe as a whole. From this the inevitable inference is that the supreme act of virtue would be the suicide of the entire human race.

St. Thomas Aquinas summed up five main arguments as proofs for God's existence.

St. Thomas Aquinas summed up five main arguments as proofs for God’s existence.

Reverting now to the teaching of St. Thomas and the Catholic Church respecting happiness, we can better appreciate the superiority of that teaching. Man is complex in his nature and activities, sentient and rational, cognitive and appetitive. There is for him a well-being of the whole and a well-being of the parts; a relatively brief existence here, an everlasting life hereafter. Beatitudo, perfect happiness, complete well-being, is to be attained not in this life, but in the next. Primarily, it consists in the activity of man’s highest cognitive faculty, the intellect, in the contemplation of God — the infinitely Beautiful. But this immediately results in the supreme delight of the will in the conscious possession of the Summum Bonum, God, the infinitely good. This blissful activity of the highest spiritual faculties, as the Catholic Faith teaches, will redound in some manner transcending our present experience to the felicity of the lower powers. For man, as man, will enjoy that perfect beatitude. Further, an integral part of that happiness will be the consciousness that it is absolutely secure and everlasting, an existence perfect in the tranquil and assured possession of all good — Status omnium bonorum aggregatione perfectus, as Boethius defines it. This state involves self-realization of the highest order and perfection of the human being in the highest degree. It thus combines whatever elements of truth are contained in the Hedonist and Rationalist theories. It recognizes the possibility of a relative and incomplete happiness in this life, and its value; but it insists on the importance of self-restraint, detachment, and control of the particular faculties and appetencies for the attainment of this limited happiness and, still more, in order to secure that eternal well-being be not sacrificed for the sake of some transitory enjoyment.

 By Michael Maher

This article is borrowed from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07131b.htm


JOSEPH RICKABY, Aquinas Ethicus, I (London, 1892); IDEM, Moral Philosophy (New York and London, 1893); CRONIN, The Science of Ethics(Dublin, 1909); JANET, Theory of Morals (tr., Edinburgh, 1872); PALEY, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (London, 1817); BENTHAM, Works, Pt. I, ed. BOWRING (Edinburgh, 1838); MILL, Utilitarianism (New York and London, 1844); SPENCER, Data of Ethics (Edinburgh, 1879); SETH, Ethical Principles (New York and London, 1904); LECKY, History of European Morals, I (New York and London, 1894); PLATO, Philebus, tr. JOWETT (Oxford, 1892); GRANT, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I (4th ed., London, 1884); RASHDALL, Aristotle’s Theory of Conduct (London, 1904). — There are several of the translations of the Nicomachean Ethics; WILLIAMS (New York and London, 1879) and PETERS (9th ed., London, 1904) are good. — SIDGWICK, Methods of Ethics (6th ed., New York and London, 1907); IDEM, History of Ethics, (17th ed., New York and London, 1896); OLLÉ-LAPRUNE, Essai sur la morale d’Aristote (Paris, 1891).

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APA citation. Maher, M. (1910). Happiness. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 1, 2019 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07131b.htm

MLA citation. Maher, Michael. “Happiness.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 1 Sept. 2019<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07131b.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Vivek Gilbert John Fernandez. Dedicated to all Catholics who find happiness in continuing the work which Our Lord began.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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