Aristotle And Happiness: Exploring The Classic Philosopher's Theory

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Often referred to as “The First Teacher” or simply, “The Philosopher”, Aristotle’s theories and teachings have remained influential in nearly every aspect of human knowledge from ethics to biology. Born in 384 B.C., Aristotle spent 20 years as both a student and teacher under the wing of the era’s most famous philosopher, Plato.

Though Aristotle’s beliefs and theories were developed hundreds of years ago, their roots in basic human instinct and emotion – especially his theories on happiness – have resulted in their continued relevance, even in our modern age. 

A brief history of Aristotle

Born in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, Aristotle was the son of the royal doctor. His first momentous task was the tutoring of Alexander the Great, who went on to successfully conquer the known world. 

Following this, Aristotle traveled to Athens to work with famed philosopher, Plato. Though Aristotle was arguably the most famous student of Plato, he was equally well known for his rejection of a number of Plato’s ideals. 

While Aristotle agreed with Plato’s understanding of ethical virtues such as justice and courage as complex emotional and social skills, he rejected Plato’s idea that virtuosity could only be achieved through formal education. 

This led to the development of Aristotle's own theory of happiness, or The Nicomachean Ethics, which was named for Aristotle's son and the book’s editor, Nicomachus. 

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Exploring Nicomachean Ethics

The book of Nicomachean Ethics was written for the purpose of exploring one ultimate question: “What makes people happy?” Aristotle set out to identify which factors tend to lead to a happy, successful life, as well as the factors that lead to the opposite. 

The theory of Nicomachean Ethics hinged on the presence of four profound and complex cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Aristotle believed that the key to happiness is found through the constant practice of virtuosity. In other words, the philosopher identified a strong connection between good and moral character and genuine happiness.

Where Plato believed that virtuosity could only be achieved through practical education and higher knowledge, Aristotle believed that the true key was practicing virtuosity for the purpose of being good, rather than merely knowing good. 

The complexity of Aristotle’s theory comes down to his implication that there is no set of rules to follow in the pursuit of happiness, morality, and character. The Nicomachean Ethics emphasize the need to learn virtue through experience, with every individual taking a different path. 

While no strict set laws could be created, Aristotle defined true happiness or “Eudaimonia” using four main points:

Happiness (or flourishing or living well) is a complete and sufficient good. This implies:

  1. That it is desired for itself.
  2. That it is not desired for the sake of anything else.
  3. That it satisfies all desire and has no evil mixed in with it.
  4. That it is stable. 

To put it simply, Aristotle believed that happiness could not be achieved through excessive wealth, material possessions or over-indulgence in vices. Simultaneously, Aristotle understood that poverty created an inadequate environment for flourishing. For this reason, Aristotle determined that happiness, or “moral goodness exists in a middle state, which is an intermediate between two vices: excess and deficiency.”

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Applying Nicomachean Ethics

Though Aristotle’s theory of happiness and the Nicomachean Ethics can be complex topics to explore, their application in everyday life is fairly simple. Take pleasure in doing the right thing. Of course, this is easier said than done. 

Many people hold on to beliefs that doing things with the purpose of acquiring wealth, honor, or bodily pleasure equates to doing what is right. According to Aristotle, this is not the case, as the purpose of seeking wealth is to attain something else, the pursuit of honor is fueled by what others think, and the satisfaction of bodily pleasure is not sufficient in particular to human beings, due to the fact that unlike animals, we are capable of reason. 

In short, Aristotle believed that deriving happiness from the act of doing the right or moral thing is the highest form of good, and thus, will lead to overall happiness. Still, he emphasized the necessity of working on yourself everyday. While the process never truly ends, you will become self-actualized on the way. 

Benefits of online therapy

While the practice and application of many of Aristotle’s ideals remain relevant in psychology today, finding true happiness is a deeply personal experience that cannot truly be defined by anyone other than the individual. If you are struggling to find your path to happiness, online therapy may be able to help. 

Effectiveness of online therapy

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According to research, the recent uptick in strong digital mental health intervention has been shown to have significant and meaningful positive effects on the well-being of participants. Furthermore, online therapy is proven to be equally as effective as in-person therapy when it comes to the reduction of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other common mental health conditions.

Takeaway

Though Aristotle existed hundreds of years ago, his theories and teachings can still be practiced and applied today. The process of learning and understanding your own sense of moral good and character can ultimately set you on a path toward happiness through flourishing and living well, if you so choose.
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