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True happiness is not what you think it is


Fr Lawrence Lew OP CC

Daniel Esparza - published on 05/29/24

For centuries, philosophers have tried to define what happiness is. The ancient Greeks articulated this pursuit through the notion of 'eudaimonia.'

For centuries, philosophers have tried to define the concept of happiness. The ancient Greeks articulated this pursuit through the notion of eudaimonia. The word, as is often the case with Greek, is a composite. It derives from the Greek words eu (good) and daimon (spirit or guiding force). Put together, the idea of “having a good spirit” implies living well, having a good life. Eudaimonia is thus not merely a state of transient pleasure or material success; it is about fulfilling one’s potential and achieving a profound sense of well-being.

But the question remains: what truly constitutes a good life?

Defining happiness

The Stoics posited that eudaimonia is not to be defined in terms of pleasure but rather in terms of living in accordance with nature and reason. For them, true happiness is achieved mainly by cultivating four virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. The Stoics held that external goods and pleasures were of no intrinsic value; what mattered was the rational use of these externals. By exercising rational control over one’s desires and emotions, an individual can achieve an inner peace that constitutes eudaimonia.

In contrast, Epicurus identified eudaimonia with pleasure, but emphasized that the highest form of pleasure is not found in indulgence, but in attaining ataraxia — a state of freedom from disturbance and pain. He posited that the most pleasant life is one devoid of fear and bodily discomfort, advocating for simple pleasures, intellectual pursuits, and the cultivation of friendships. All of this, to maximize long-term pleasure by minimizing pain and unnecessary desires.

Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, as presented in his Nicomachean Ethics, regards it as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue over a complete life. He surely acknowledged the importance of external goods such as wealth, health, and friends, but saw them as contributory rather than sufficient. Aristotle posits that true happiness is achieved through the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues, which involve reason and the proper function of human beings. Pleasure is a natural consequence of virtuous actions, rather than the ultimate objective.

A medieval twist

Despite their differences, all three traditions agree that a well-lived life extends beyond mere hedonistic pleasure, aiming at a deeper, more enduring form of happiness. Thomas Aquinas concurred with the Greeks that true happiness, or beatitudo, is not merely a matter of pleasure.  He posited that this state of happiness arises from living in accordance with reason and attaining one’s ultimate purpose, which is to know and love God.

This is where Aquinas’ perspective diverges from the others. While Aristotle believed that eudaimonia could be achieved in this life, Aquinas saw perfect happiness as something that could only be attained in the afterlife, in direct union with God. Nevertheless, this does not preclude the possibility of experiencing a “foreshadowing” of true happiness in the present.

Imperfect happiness

Aquinas postulated that a virtuous life leads to a kind of “imperfect happiness” (felicitas). Far from being mere consolation, this felicitas is rather a profound sense of tranquility, fulfillment, and purpose that arises from aligning oneself with God’s plan. But, again, the question arises: how can this happiness be cultivated? Well, Aquinas identified several key elements.

1. Virtuous living is the foundation of a virtuous life. It might seem obvious, but that’s not exactly the case. The cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude serve as a moral compass, guiding individuals towards making sound decisions — the cornerstones of a well-lived life.

2. The capacity to reason and discern truth is a defining feature of the human condition. An understanding of one’s place in the universe and of God’s plan allows for the making of choices that contribute to one’s ultimate happiness.

3. The cultivation of a relationship with God. Prayer, reflection, and living in accordance with God’s love facilitate a connection with the source of all good. This connection engenders a tranquility that transcends the vicissitudes of terrestrial gratification.

Experiencing authentic joy

It can be seen that Aquinas’ perspective is not one of waiting for the afterlife at all. It is about living in a manner that facilitates our proximity to God and enables us to experience authentic joy in the present moment. Such fulfillment may be attained through a life lived charitably, the use of one’s abilities for constructive purposes, or an appreciation of the aesthetic beauty that surrounds us.

By striving for virtue, employing reason, and fostering a relationship with God, we cultivate Aquinas’ “imperfect happiness.” This type of happiness grounds us in the present and guides us on our journey towards ultimate fulfillment. While perfect happiness may be beyond the scope of our earthly experience, Aquinas offers a path for navigating this life with purpose, meaning, and a foundation for enduring joy.

Catholic LifestylePersonal GrowthThomas Aquinas
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