Even though there isn’t a single universal definition of what happiness is, there are cross-cutting similarities among people as to what the concept of happiness entails. Some researchers have however dismissed the claims that happiness can be understood from a general perspective and instead suggested that its experience is not only subjective but idiosyncratic as well. Other studies have shown that at different life stages, the idea of happiness changes for individuals. On one hand, younger people are said to associate happiness with excitement while on the other hand, older people are said to relate happiness with the state of peacefulness. Respondents to a study conducted by Lu in 2002 defined happiness as a “mental state of satisfaction”. Others defined it in terms of pleasant emotions while others said it was a harmonious state in the existence of an individual. Therefore, happiness is a state, in which a person experiences positive emotions as well as mental and physical satisfaction; it is the absence of negative emotions.
Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who lived between 341-270 BCE, developed a philosophy on personal happiness during the 3rd century B.C. This philosophy gave rise to the school of thought known as Epicureanism which states that “…the chief good is to decrease pain and fear and increase pleasure”. Epicurus attained the zenith of his philosophy and gave his followers lessons on how to attain the same by simply striving for pleasure. As an example, he surrounded himself with friends and took pleasure in simple things such as enjoying a piece of cheese. His claim that the principles of his philosophy drew from empirical facts brought him fame and earned him a large following. Even though Epicurus’s notion of happiness emphasized on a lifestyle that chases sensual pleasure, he was keen to caution people against the quest for luxury. He warned that indulgence in such mannerisms would act to escalate desires which would, in turn, make one dependent on fortune.
He further taught that death and gods were the ultimate sources of fear for man and that if man countered these fears, he would attain the greatest happiness. Epicurus said that the lack of pain that leads to a state of pleasure is experienced on two levels; the lack of bodily pain otherwise known as ‘aponia’ and the lack of soul pain also known as ‘ataraxia.’ The blend of these two states, Epicurus said, constituted the zenith of happiness for any person.
Veenhoven defined overall happiness as “the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of life as a whole favorably” (7). His approach to happiness reflects that a person’s own attitude towards life, together with their feelings and beliefs, play a key role in determining their happiness. Veenhoven asserts that the feelings and thought patterns that people exhibit constitute the components of happiness. He speaks of the Hedonic level of affect which entails an individual’s assessment of their emotions, moods, and feelings and then deciding how pleasant these affects are. Therefore, Veenhoven’s notion of overall happiness consists of two aspects; the hedonic level of affect and the contentment which refers to the individual’s realization of their wants.
Confucius, the renowned Chinese philosopher best known for pioneering the Confucian philosophy, also attempted to define what happiness is. His philosophy an individual should work to not only preserve his or her family’s prosperity but expand it as well. To him, “Happiness is to achieve this ultimate life goal through hard working and frugality to accumulate material resources, through intellectual labor and passing exams to obtain respectable social status, through suppression of selfish and earthly desires to lead a virtuous life, and ultimately through the fulfillment of one’s social duties”. Confucius said that in order for an individual to be happy, he or she must control his or her passions. He taught that happiness is a spiritual state, moral and self-identified.
Aristotle, another great philosopher, contributed greatly to the topic of happiness in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle states that the sole objective in man’s life is the attainment of happiness because it is the greatest good. He points out that there exist other forms of good in life such as wealth and good health, but declares that happiness is the greatest good. Happiness for him was that state at which an individual has all they desire and lacks nothing. He said, “A happy man wants for nothing”. Aristotle defined a happy life as “…a life made perfect by the possession of all good things such as wealth, health, friendship…” He further makes it clear that the happiness experienced by people is neither created by the pleasures they enjoy nor is it destroyed by their sufferings. For him, a happy life is tantamount to a good life.
Aristotle stated that the most important prerequisite to the attainment of happiness is possession of good moral character. He also referred to this moral character as “complete virtue” clearly stating that it is not enough to possess only one virtue and that a person needs to be completely virtuous. He adds that contrary to the belief that people experience and perceive happiness differently, it is the same for those who truly achieve it.
Aristotle states for one to assess whether they have led a happy life, they need to have lived a complete life. In fact, he is keen to note that young people, due to their age, know no happiness. A combination of a complete life and complete virtues are the key determinants of happiness. An individual, Aristotle says, encounters a lot of changes during life and so making conclusions that they have lived a good and happy life before it comes to an end would be unwise. The sum total of all the other goods gathered throughout a person’s lifetime is key components in the attainment of full potential in man. This means that the person needs to constantly make decisions throughout their lives that lie between pursuing immediate pleasures and foregoing the opportunities to attain a greater good in the future or vice versa.
In conclusion, the concept of happiness, even though defined differently by different people, elicits similar affects among people. These affects are positive in nature and have a sense of satisfaction tied to them.
Adler, Mortimer. “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Theory of Happiness.”utpa.edu., n.d. Web. 8 Sep. 2012.
Bergsma, Ad., Poot, Germaine, and Liefbroer, Aart. “Happiness in The Garden of Epicurus.” J Happiness Stud, 2008. Web, 8 Sep 2012.
Veenhoven, Ruut. “How Do We Assess How Happy We Are? Tenets, Implications and Tenability of Three Theories.” University of Notre Dame. 22-24 October 2006.