For Aristotle, happiness was the ultimate end and purpose of human existence.
To him, the highest good and ultimate goal of a person’s life was ’eudaemonia’.
This word is often translated as ’happiness’ or ’welfare’ but differs in our usual definition of happiness in that it is characterised as a life well lived and is objective rather than subjective.
According to Aristotle, happiness is not pleasure or virtue, but rather the exercise of virtue.
The Good Life Debate
The role ’happiness’ plays a large part in a meaningful life but what happiness really is has been debated by philosophers throughout history.
To Epicurus, happiness was pleasure and he argued that all things are to be done for the sake of the pleasant feelings associated with them.
This seems quite the opposite of Aristotle’s focus on strict, virtuous living until you learn that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure was the ’absence of pain’.
So, if you’d like to call yourself an Epicurean, you cannot just ’fill your face with cake’ because it tastes good since this will lead to pain down the road.
To attain pleasure, Epicurus believed in living modestly, acquiring knowledge of the workings of the world as well as the limits of one’s desires.
This, in turn, leads one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, combined with an absence of bodily pain (aponia).
The Stoic Seneca made the case that pleasure and happiness is not the end goal of the human life.
Instead, one should focus on living properly. This will, in turn, lead to happiness and pleasure but they are merely pleasant side effects resulting from sensible living.
Even though they viewed the highest good and the end goal of life differently, Aristotle, Epicurus and Seneca all stressed in their own way the importance of living virtuously.
The Birth of Positive Psychology
This classical philosophical concept of virtues plays a big part in psychology today.
When Martin Seligman founded ’positive psychology’ in 1998, he did so because he felt psychology had lost its way.
He argued psychology had only focused on the sick and dark parts of the human mind whilst neglecting that which was good.
An enormous manual known as ’DSM’ – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1) – had been created to diagnose every conceivable disease and behavioural deficit but psychology didn’t even have appropriate terminology in place in order to discuss the positives of human nature.
The book ’Character Strengths and Virtues (2)’ was published in 2004 as the first attempt by scientists to identify and classify the positive psychology traits in people.
With this book Seligman and his colleague, Christopher Peterson, wanted to offer an equivalent to the ’DSM’ with theoretical models in order to develop practical applications of positive psychology.
The book contains a collection of virtues, strengths and values that are organized under the overarching themes ’wisdom & knowledge’, ’courage’, ’humanity’, ’justice’, ’temperance’ and ’transcendence’ – all of which the aforementioned philosophers considered essential for a meaningful and happy life.
The idea behind the book was that by helping individuals and organisations to properly identify their strengths and then put them to use, they could increase their well-being.
The Flow State
Imagine for a moment doing something you excel at and thoroughly enjoy. This could be anything from playing a musical instrument, taking part in a sport, playing a video game, reading a book or some other task that plays to your strengths and that you enjoy doing.
Have you ever experienced a time when you became so involved in the task at hand that you were completely absorbed in it, shut off everything that was going on around you and totally forgot about the time?
We’ve all had this experience to a different extent and what’s going on here is what psychologists refer to as the ’flow state’.
Research on this phenomenon began when positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (pronounced mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee), became fascinated by artists becoming so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep.
To understand what was going on with these artists Csikszentmihalyi, and his team of researchers, began studying what would later be called ’flow’ or ’the zone’.
Flow research became prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s which was the time when researchers found people experiencing genuine satisfaction once entering this state of consciousness.
In this state of flow they are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. They feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious and at the peak of their abilities.
Csikszentmihalyi insists that happiness does not simply happen. It must be prepared for and cultivated by each person, by setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for one’s abilities.
Living Your Strengths
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (3)
When you put your undivided attention and best efforts into something you enjoy doing, you’ll dramatically increase the chances of experiencing this flow state in which everything else disappears and you’re completely immersed in the task at hand.
The old philosophers’ teachings tell us that to be happy, ’we have to live according to our virtues’. This idea is now supported by modern research in positive psychology and flow.
If you know yourself, what you stand for and what you’re good at and then spend your time focusing on these things, you’ll be much happier.
Today, there are some very helpful tools out there to help you define your personal strengths so you can purposively put them to use more:
- Take a personality test. I highly recommend the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This test makes the psychological personality types described by Carl Jung easy to understand and very useful.
- Take a strength’s test. To find out your personal strengths I recommend the full VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the Authentic Happiness website developed by the Positive Psychology Center where Martin Seligman is the Director.
- Take a value’s test. Psychology today offers a values test after which you’ll receive a Snapshot Report with a list of your dominant, influencing and minor values. You can then purchase the full results if you want.
Completing these tests will take some time as they’re quite extensive. Don’t let this discourage you. The lessons you’ll learn about yourself can be invaluable going forward. If the time investment seems too big for you, just bookmark this article and come back to it. You don’t have to do them all in one sitting.
When you’ve finished the tests, open your journal and spend some time reflecting on how you can use your personal strengths more frequently and live more ‘tuned in’ to your values.
Do this and you’ll experience more flow, happiness and effortless productivity.
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.”
For further reading about the old philosophers thoughts on the good life check out The Pursuit of Happiness.