On the Varieties of Happiness

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.1” – Blaise Pascal

You want to be happy, I want to be happy, the world wants to be happy.

We use other words for happiness: success, joy, “the good life,” peace, and sometimes even satisfaction.

All of the words above, while used interchangeably, are hard to define. Philosophers and psychologists argue about happiness. It almost seems that, it shares a quality with pornography, about which was famously said, “I know it when I see it.”

In Pascal’s case above, the most basic definition of happiness is “the motive of every action of every man.” Pascal is not alone in defining happiness this way. Aristotle himself utilized this definition of happiness: “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.2

I’ll go with this basic definition. Happiness is that thing which we all seek with all of our actions.

Now, here’s the kicker. Happiness (or whatever word you use for the goal sought by all human action) is described and defined differently in different circles and by different individuals.

You might think, “why does that matter? People want different things, so it makes sense that people would define their main goal for all their decisions differently, but if humans are all the same kind of thing, then their final goal is the same because they have the same nature and similar (though not the same) means should be used in seeking it. By analogy, look at exercise. If one person describes strength as being able to bicep curl 30 pounds for 300 reps and another defines it as being able to lift incredible weights over their head, then their training systems will vary tremendously. And if people define happiness differently, but still conceive of it as their highest goal in life, then they will likewise seek it very differently. But unlike weightlifting where one can choose the nature of the goals you seek, human life is the only life we have. We cannot choose our highest good, it simply is what it is, regardless of how we define it. If we seek happiness with an incorrect understanding of its nature, we’ll end up unhappy except by luck.

Thomas Aquinas answered the question, “doesn’t everybody seek happiness” with a yes and no answer:

I answer that, Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (AA. 3, 4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. Secondly we may speak of Happiness according to its specific notion, as to that in which it consists. And thus all do not know Happiness; because they know not in what thing the general notion of happiness is found. And consequently, in this respect, not all desire it.3

In other words, all seek happiness insofar as all seek the highest good for themselves, but not all know what the highest good is.

Common Perspectives on Happiness

Happiness as Positive Emotional Experience

In some circles, happiness is considered a mere psychological phenomenon. It’s just feelings and chemicals. My favorite author who claims this is a cartoonist and not a philosopher. But he’s a formidable cartoonist and a helpful author as well. Here is his definition of happiness:

“My definition of happiness is that it’s a feeling you get when your body chemistry is producing pleasant sensations in your mind.”4 Adams follows a venerable tradition of defining happiness in terms of feelings.5 As an aside, it appears that Adams would say that there is more to life than feeling good. Elsewhere he says that, “The only reasonable goal in life is maximizing your total lifetime experience of something called happiness. That might sound selfish, but it’s not. Only a sociopath or a hermit can find happiness through extreme selfishness.6” So, the good feelings of happiness do depend upon virtue, but virtue is not a part of happiness or even a necessary condition. It is simple one condition for most people.

Happiness as Virtue

The stoics defined happiness as virtue itself. To them, virtues were moral habits and virtue was the only good (good defined as that which is desirable). To be moral is sufficient for happiness. In other words, there are no others goods necessary to be happy. In this case, happiness seems to have very little to do with personal feelings, possessions, and relationships (except insofar as relationships are matters of ethics). This austere vision of happiness is very compelling to me. The idea that doing what is right is the same thing as the good life makes a lot of sense to me. It made even more sense to Immanuel Kant. Of course, one might ask the question, “What is better, to have virtue and pleasure or merely virtue?” I think that most honest people would realize that the combination is superior.

Happiness as Pleasure

One famous definition of happiness is simple pleasure. Happiness is pleasure, full stop. This particular definition is probably very common today. Among philosophers it was treated with contempt in the ancient world. The author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes was critical this view based on personal experience, “I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.”7 This definition of happiness breaks down similarly to the previous one. Is it better to have pleasure with no courage or wisdom? Or is it better to have virtue and pleasure? The answer is, of course, the combination.

Happiness as Flourishing

Aristotle, when he further described the highest human good (again, this is his definition of happiness), said, “is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle…[and] in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.89 But elsewhere Aristotle adds that happiness includes other elements of real good as well. His understanding of happiness includes the fulfillment of desire. With regard to friendship, “without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods10…” Elsewhere he observes regarding intelligence that, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life…11” For Aristotle then, happiness is the attainment of the goods of human existence including virtue. In his case then, happiness is nor merely a state for which we can set ourselves up and hope for. Instead it is an activity. His vision of happiness includes pleasure, social relationships, and excellence (virtue). It is a life when one successfully seeks their real needs. Thus, it will differ with regard to specifics for all, while still having roughly the same blueprint.

At this point it’s important to ask, “Do people seek virtue?” And the answer is yes. They simply do not seek it perfectly. But most people want to be known as virtuous and most people will justify their actions when they are accused of a wrong. Why? Because being good (and being known as good) is desirable. So virtue is a component of what we all seek (happiness), even if we aren’t seeking to become virtuous (thus remaining unhappy).

Happiness as God

For Thomas Aquinas, who saw happiness as the highest good, God had to be happiness. Why? Because the most perfect good is necessarily the most perfect being. This is why he said that, “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.12” Why? Because temporal happiness still involves and requires seeking, but the vision of God entails the end of all seeking. So while there is, for Aquinas, tremendous value in natural human flourishing (Aristotle’s view), human flourishing finds its completion in the soul’s apprehension of the divine nature in everlasting life.

Of course, this vision of happiness is only available subjectively to those who think that a deity exists. And it is only available objectively to those to whom God, if real, give this grace.


You want to be happy. It’s important to think about what that means. Few people simply think of specific things or circumstances in the big cold world that would make them feel better, but not the particular character of life it would take to actually be a happy human soul. I hope this brief meditation on the nature of happiness has helped you.


1Blaise Pascal, The Harvard Classics 48: Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works, ed. Charles W. Eliot, trans. W. F. Trotter, M. L. Booth, and O. W. Wight (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 138.

2Aristotle, “ETHICA NICOMACHEA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. W. D. ROSS, vol. 9 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925).
3Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).
4Adams, Scott. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 172). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
5I say “seems” because Seneca wrote in his letters about the importance of how one feels for determining whether or not the right course of life has been taken. See especially Letter 9 in Letters from a Stoic.
6Adams, Scott. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 171). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
7Ecclesiastes 2:1
8 Aristotle, “ETHICA NICOMACHEA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. W. D. ROSS, vol. 9 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925).
9 Aristotle, “ETHICA NICOMACHEA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. W. D. ROSS, vol. 9 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925).
10 Aristotle, “ETHICA NICOMACHEA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. W. D. ROSS, vol. 9 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925).
11 Aristotle, “ETHICA NICOMACHEA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. W. D. ROSS, vol. 9 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925).
12 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

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