Philosophy of happiness

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The philosophy of happiness is the philosophical concern with the existence, nature, and attainment of happiness. Some philosophers believe happiness can be understood as the moral goal of life or as an aspect of chance; indeed, in most European languages the term happiness is synonymous with luck.[1] Thus, philosophers usually explicate on happiness as either a state of mind, or a life that goes well for the person leading it.[2] Given the pragmatic concern for the attainment of happiness, research in psychology has guided many modern day philosophers in developing their theories.[3]

Ancient Greece[edit]

Democritus by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1628.


Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) is known as the 'laughing philosopher' because of his emphasis on the value of 'cheerfulness'.[4]


We have proved that justice in itself is the best thing for the soul itself, and that the soul ought to do justice...

Plato (c. 428 – c. 347 BCE), using Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BCE) as the main character in his philosophical dialogues, outlined the requirements for happiness in The Republic.

In The Republic, Plato asserts that those who are moral are the only ones who may be truly happy. Thus, one must understand the cardinal virtues, particularly justice. Through the thought experiment of the Ring of Gyges, Plato comes to the conclusion that one who abuses power enslaves himself to his appetites, while the man who chooses not to remains rationally in control of himself, and therefore is happy.[5][6]

He also sees a type of happiness stemming from social justice through fulfilling one's social function; since this duty forms happiness, other typically seen sources of happiness – such as leisure, wealth, and pleasure – are deemed lesser, if not completely false, forms of happiness.[7]


Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) was considered an ancient Greek scholar in the disciplines of ethics, metaphysics, biology and botany, amongst others.[8] Aristotle described eudaimonia (Greek: εὐδαιμονία) as the goal of human thought and action. Eudaimonia is often translated to mean happiness, but some scholars contend that "human flourishing" may be a more accurate translation.[9] More specifically, eudaimonia (arete, Greek: ἀρετή) refers to an inherently positive and divine state of being in which humanity can actively strive for and achieve. Given that this state is the most positive state for a human to be in, it is often simplified to mean happiness. However, Aristotle's use of the term in Nicomachiean Ethics extends beyond the general sense of happiness.[10]

Within the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points to the fact that many aims are really only intermediate aims, and are desired only because they make the achievement of higher aims possible.[11] Therefore, things such as wealth, intelligence, and courage are valued only in relation to other things, while eudaimonia is the only thing valuable in isolation.

Aristotle regarded virtue as necessary for a person to be happy and held that without virtue the most that may be attained is contentment. For Aristotle, achieving virtue involves asking the question "how should I be" rather than "what should I do". A fully virtuous person is described as achieving eudaimonia, and therefore would be undeniably happy. The acquisition of virtue is the main consideration for Aristotelian Virtue Ethics.[8] Aristotle has been criticized for failing to show that virtue is necessary in the way he claims it to be, and he does not address this moral skepticism.[12]


Marble statue of Aristotle, created by Romans in 330 BC.
The carved busts of Socrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippus, and Epicurus.

Antisthenes (c. 445 – c. 365 BCE), often regarded as the founder of Cynicism, advocated an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue. Xenophon testifies that Antisthenes had praised the joy that sprang "from out of one's soul,"[13] and Diogenes Laërtius relates that Antisthenes was fond of saying: "I would rather go mad than feel pleasure."[14] He maintained that virtue was sufficient in itself to ensure happiness, only needing the strength of a Socrates.

He, along with all following Cynics, rejected any conventional notions of happiness involving money, power, and fame, to lead entirely virtuous, and thus happy, lives.[15] Thus, happiness can be gained through rigorous training (askesis, Greek: ἄσκησις) and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires, preferring a simple life free from all possessions.

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 – c. 323 BCE) is most frequently seen as the perfect embodiment of the philosophy. The Stoics themselves saw him as one of the few, if not only, who have had achieved the state of sage.[16]


As a consequence the sage, even if he has his troubles, will nonetheless be happy, even if few pleasures accrue to him.

The Cyrenaics were a school of philosophy established by Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435 – c. 356 BCE). The school asserted that the only good is positive pleasure, and pain is the only evil. They posit that all feeling is momentary so all past and future pleasure have no real existence for an individual, and that among present pleasures there is no distinction of kind.[19] Claudius Aelianus, in his Historical Miscellany,[20] writes about Aristippus:

"He recommended that one should concrete on the present day, and indeed on the very part of it in which one is acting and thinking. For only the present, he said, truly belongs to us, and not what has passed by or what we are anticipating: for the one is gone and done with, and it is uncertain whether the other will come to be"[21]

Some immediate pleasures can create more than their equivalent of pain. The wise person should be in control of pleasures rather than be enslaved to them, otherwise pain will result, and this requires judgement to evaluate the different pleasures of life.[22]


Pyrrhonism was founded by Pyrrho (c. 360 – c. 270 BCE), and was the first Western school of philosophical skepticism. The goal of Pyrrhonist practice is to attain the state of ataraxia (ataraxia, Greek: ἀταραξία) – freedom from perturbation. Pyrrho identified that what prevented people from attaining ataraxia was their beliefs in non-evident matters, i.e., holding dogmas. To free people from belief the ancient Pyrrhonists developed a variety of skeptical arguments.


Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.

— Epicurus[23]

Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus (c. 341 – c. 270 BCE). The goal of his philosophy was to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia, Greek: ἀταραξία) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia, Greek: ἀπονία). Toward these ends, Epicurus recommended an ascetic lifestyle, noble friendship, and the avoidance of politics.

One aid to achieving happiness is the tetrapharmakos or the four-fold cure:

A papyrus copy depicting the Epicurean tetrapharmakos in Philodemus of Gadara's Adversus Sophistas(P.Herc.1005), col. 5

"Do not fear god,
Do not worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure."
(Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus, 1005, 4.9–14).[24]


If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.

Stoicism was a school of philosophy established by Zeno of Citium (c. 334 – c. 262 BCE). While Zeno was syncretic in thought, his primary influence were the Cynics, with Crates of Thebes (c. 365 – c. 285 BCE) as his mentor. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics that provides a system of logic and views about the natural world.[26] Modern use of the term "stoic" typically refers not to followers of Stoicism, but to individuals who feel indifferent to experiences of the world, or represses feelings in general.[27] Given Stoicism's emphasis on feeling indifferent to negativity, it is seen as a path to achieving happiness.[28]

Stoics believe that "virtue is sufficient for happiness".[29] One who has attained this sense of virtue would become a sage. In the words of Epictetus, this sage would be "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy."[30]

The Stoics therefore spent their time trying to attain virtue. This would only be achieved if one was to dedicate their life studying Stoic logic, Stoic physics, and Stoic ethics. Stoics describe themselves as "living in agreement with nature." Certain schools of Stoicism refer to Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia as the goal of practicing Stoic philosophy.[31]

Ancient Rome[edit]

School of the Sextii[edit]

The School of the Sextii was founded by Quintus Sextius the Elder (fl. 50 BCE). It characterized itself mainly as a philosophical-medical school, blending Pythagorean, Platonic, Cynic, and Stoic elements together.[32] They argued that to achieve happiness, one ought to be vegetarian, have nightly examinations of conscience, and avoid both consumerism and politics,[33] and believe that an elusive incorporeal power pervades the body.[32]

Augustine of Hippo[edit]

Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

— St. Augustine, Confessions.[34]

The happy life is joy based on the truth. This is joy grounded in you, O God, who are the truth.

— St. Augustine, Confessions.[35]

St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) was an early Christian theologian and philosopher[36] whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy.

For St. Augustine, all human actions revolve around love, and the primary problem humans face is the misplacing of love.[37] Only in God can one find happiness, as He is source of happiness. Since humanity was brought forth from God, but has since fallen, one's soul dimly remembers the happiness from when one was with God.[38] Thus, if one orients themselves toward the love of God, all other loves will become properly ordered.[39] In this manner, St. Augustine follows the Neoplatonic tradition in asserting that happiness lays in the contemplation of the purely intelligible realm.[38]

St. Augustine deals with the concept of happiness directly in his treatises De beata vita and Contra Academicos.[38]


Mortal creatures have one overall concern. This they work at by toiling over a whole range of pursuits, advancing on different paths, but striving to attain the one goal of happiness.

Boethius (c. 480–524 AD) was a philosopher, most famous for writing The Consolation of Philosophy. The work has been described as having had the single most important influence on the Christianity of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance and as the last great work of the Classical Period.[41][note 1] The book describes many themes, but among them he discusses how happiness can be attainable despite changing fortune, while considering the nature of happiness and God.

He posits that happiness is acquired by attaining the perfect good, and that perfect good is God.[40] He then concludes that as God ruled the universe through Love, prayer to God and the application of Love would lead to true happiness.[42]

Middle Ages[edit]


A drawing of Avicenna, 1960.

Avicenna (c. 980–1037), also known as 'Ibn-Sina', was a polymath and jurist; he is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers in the Islamic Golden Age.[43] According to him, happiness is the aim of humans, and that real happiness is pure and free from worldly interest.[44] Ultimately, happiness is reached through the conjunction of the human intellect with the separate active intellect.[45]


Al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111) was a Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic of Persian descent.[46] Produced near the end of his life, al-Ghazali wrote The Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya-yi Sa'ādat, (Persian: كيمياى سعادت).[47] In the work, he emphasizes the importance of observing the ritual requirements of Islam, the actions that would lead to salvation, and the avoidance of sin. Only by exercising the human faculty of reason – a God-given ability – can one transform the soul from worldliness to complete devotion to God, the ultimate happiness.[48]

According to Al-Ghazali, there are four main constituents of happiness: self-knowledge, knowledge of God, knowledge of this world as it really is, and the knowledge of the next world as it really is.[49]


Maimonides (c. 1135–1204) was a Jewish philosopher and astronomer,[50] who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians.[51] He writes that happiness is ultimately and essentially intellectual.[52]

Thomas Aquinas[edit]

God is happiness by His Essence: for He is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by His Essence.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD) was a philosopher and theologian, who became a Doctor of the Church in 1323.[54] His system syncretized Aristotelianism and Catholic theology within his Summa Theologica.[55] The first part of the second part is divided into 114 articles, the first five deal explicitly with the happiness of humans.[56] He states that happiness is achieved by cultivating several intellectual and moral virtues, which enable us to understand the nature of happiness and motivate us to seek it in a reliable and consistent way.[55] Yet, one will be unable to find the greatest happiness in this life, because final happiness consists in a supernatural union with God.[55][57] As such, man's happiness does not consist of wealth, status, pleasure, or in any created good at all. Most goods do not have a necessary connection to happiness,[55] since the ultimate object of man's will, can only be found in God, who is the source of all good.[58]

Early Modern[edit]

Michel de Montaigne[edit]

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was a French philosopher. Influenced by Hellenistic philosophy and Christianity, alongside the conviction of the separation of public and private spheres of life, Montaigne writes that happiness is a subjective state of mind and that satisfaction differs from person to person.[59] He continues by acknowledging that one must be allowed a private sphere of life to realize those particular attempts of happiness without the interference of society.[59]

Jeremy Bentham[edit]

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer. He is regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.

His particular brand of utilitarianism indicated that the most moral action is that which causes the highest amount of utility, where defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. Happiness, therefore, is the experience of pleasure and the lack of pain.[60] Actions which do not promote the greatest happiness is morally wrong – such as ascetic sacrifice.[60] This manner of thinking permits the possibility of a calculator to measure happiness and moral value.

Arthur Schopenhauer[edit]

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was a German philosopher. His philosophy express that egotistical acts are those that are guided by self-interest, desire for pleasure or happiness, whereas only compassion can be a moral act.

Schopenhauer explains happiness in terms of a wish that is satisfied, which in turn gives rise to a new wish. And the absence of satisfaction is suffering, which results in an empty longing. He also links happiness with the movement of time, as we feel happy when time moves faster and feel sad when time slows down.[61]


Władysław Tatarkiewicz[edit]

Władysław Tatarkiewicz (1886–1980) was a Polish philosopher, historian of philosophy, historian of art, esthetician, and ethicist.[62]

For Tatarkiewicz, happiness is a fundamental ethical category.

Herbert Marcuse[edit]

Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) was a German-American philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist, associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

In his 1937 essay 'The Affirmative Character of Culture,' he suggests culture develops tension within the structure of society, and in that tension can challenge the current social order. If it separates itself from the everyday world, the demand for happiness will cease to be external, and begin to become an object of spiritual contemplation.[63]

In the One-Dimensional Man, his criticism of consumerism suggests that the current system is one that claims to be democratic, but is authoritarian in character, as only a few individuals dictate the perceptions of freedom by only allowing certain choices of happiness to be available for purchase.[64] He further suggests that the conception that 'happiness can be bought' is one that is psychologically damaging.

Viktor Frankl[edit]

It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy'.

Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy. His philosophy revolved around the emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self;[65] only if one encounters those questions can one be happy.

Robert Nozick[edit]

Robert Nozick (1938–2002) was an American philosopher[66] and professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his political philosophy, but he proposed two thought experiments directly tied to issues on Philosophy of Happiness.

In his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, Utopia, he proposed a thought experiment where one is given the option to enter a machine that would give the maximum amount of unending hedonistic pleasure for the entirety of one's life. The machine described in his thought experiment is often described as the "Experience Machine." The machine works by giving the participant connected to it the sensation of any experience they desired and is said to produce sensations that are indistinguishable from real life experiences.[67]

Nozick outlined the "utility monster" thought experiment as an attempted criticism to utilitarianism. Utilitarian ethics provides guidance for acting morally, but also to maximizing happiness. The utility monster is a hypothetical being that generates extreme amount of theoretical pleasure units compared to the average person. Consider a situation such as the utility monster receiving fifty units of pleasure from eating a cake versus forty other people receiving only one unit of pleasure per cake eaten. Although each individual receives the same treatment or good, the utility monster somehow generates more than all the other people combined. Given many utilitarian commitments to maximizing utility related to pleasure, the thought experiment is meant to force utilitarians to commit themselves to feeding the utility monster instead of a mass of other people, despite our general intuitions insisting otherwise. The criticism essentially comes in the form of a reductio ad absurdum criticism by showing that utilitarians adopt a view that is absurd to our moral intuitions, specifically that we should consider the utility monster with much more regard than a number of other people.[68]

Happiness research[edit]

Happiness research is the quantitative and theoretical study of happiness, positive and negative affect, well-being, quality of life, life satisfaction and related concepts. It is especially influenced by psychologists, but also sociologists and economists have contributed. The tracking of Gross National Happiness or the satisfaction of life grow increasingly popular as the economics of happiness challenges traditional economic aims.[69]

Richard Layard has been very influential in this area. He has shown that mental illness is the main cause of unhappiness.[70] Other, more influential researchers are Ed Diener, Ruut Veenhoven and Daniel Kahneman.

Sonja Lyubomirsky[edit]

Sonja Lyubomirsky asserted in her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, that happiness is 50 percent genetically determined (based on twin studies),[71] 10 percent circumstantial, and 40 percent subject to self-control.[72]

Impact of individualism[edit]

Hedonism appears to be more strongly related to happiness in more individualistic cultures.[73]

Happiness movement[edit]

Happiness is becoming a more clearly delineated aim in the West, both of individuals and politics (including happiness economics). The World Happiness Report shows the level of interest, and organisations such as Action for Happiness undertake practical actions.

Cultures not seeking to maximise happiness[edit]

Not all cultures seek to maximise happiness,[74][75][76] and some cultures are averse to happiness.[77][78] Also June Gruber suggests that seeking happiness can have negative effects, such as failed over-high expectations,[79] and instead advocates a more open stance to all emotions.[80] Other research has analyzed possible trade-offs between happiness and meaning in life.[81][82][83] Those not seeking to maximize happiness are in contrast to the moral theory of utilitarianism which states our ethical obligation is to maximize the net amount of happiness/pleasure in the world, considering all moral agents with equal regard.[84]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Happiness, BBC Radio 4 discussion with Angie Hobbs, Simon Blackburn and Anthony Grayling (In Our Time, 24 Jan. 2002)