Aristotle’s View on Happiness

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy. He lived from 384 to 322 BCE and his ideas have shaped fields ranging from logic to politics to ethics. One of Aristotle’s most notable discussions of ethics appears in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he extensively analyzes the concept of happiness. Aristotle believed that all human activities aim at some good or end, which he called “happiness.” However, happiness is not simply about feeling good, it consists of lasting fulfillment. Aristotle’s ethics are considered a type of virtue ethics, where moral character and human flourishing take priority over rules and consequences. The Nicomachean Ethics lays out Aristotle’s philosophical system for living well. He believed philosophy should not just be theoretical knowledge, but also practical wisdom to inform how we live. For Aristotle, cultivating virtues and aiming at happiness is part of the human function and equips us to fulfill our purpose. His emphasis on living well continues to influence how we think about ethics, personal development, and meaning. Over the centuries, Aristotle’s perspective on happiness and human flourishing has remained highly influential. His thoughts still shape major strands of ethics and philosophy. Understanding Aristotle’s conception of happiness provides insight into a foundational idea that pervades Western thought and continues to guide our search for the good life.

Aristotle’s Definition of Happiness

Aristotle argues that happiness is more than just a feeling or emotional state. Rather, true happiness is found in the ongoing activity of living well and actualizing one’s human virtues and potential, which Aristotle called “eudaimonia.” According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is the ultimate good – the highest aim and purpose in human life. It goes beyond momentary pleasure to encompass the whole of life and requires conscious effort guided by reason. Happiness is not contingent on outside circumstances, but rather it is achieved through actively employing the uniquely human capacity for reason in accordance with virtue or excellence. Aristotle believed that because humans have logos (reason), we have a special capacity that other animals lack. This means that unlike other creatures, humans can actively shape their own lives based on rational deliberation about how to live well. The exercise of reason leads to virtuous choices and activities which allow one to flourish. Thus, eudaimonia consists not just of feeling happy, but of rationally directing one’s life, developing one’s virtues, and fulfilling one’s human capacities through reason. For Aristotle, being happy means committing to a lifetime of learning, cultivating wisdom and character, contributing to society, engaging in meaningful work and relationships, and living an ethical, purposeful, and fulfilling human life. It is not a passive state, but an ongoing activity that encompasses all aspects of life. True happiness is to realize our potential for excellence as human beings.

The Highest Good

For Aristotle, happiness is the highest good and the end that all human activities aim at. Aristotle argues that while pleasure, wealth, honour, and other goods are desired, they are desired only for the sake of happiness. Happiness is that which makes life worthy of choice and lacking in nothing. It is complete in itself and not pursued for any other end. Aristotle contrasts happiness with pleasure and honour. While pleasure is necessary for happiness, pleasure alone cannot constitute happiness. For pleasure is fleeting and prone to excess. Similarly, while honour is desirable, pursuing honour for its own sake can lead one to act viciously and harm others. In this way, both pleasure and honour are inferior to happiness. Happiness for Aristotle is chosen always for itself, never for the sake of anything else. It is not a means to any other end, but the ultimate end of all human aims and activities. Happiness is the highest good because it is the only good that is complete in itself. All other goods are steps on the road towards happiness.

The Function of Human Beings

For Aristotle, the ultimate goal or purpose (telos) for human existence is happiness (eudaimonia). To understand what constitutes happiness, we must first examine human nature and determine the function of human beings. According to Aristotle, everything has a purpose or end. The purpose of a knife is to cut. The purpose of a doctor is to heal and care for patients. So what is the function of human beings? Aristotle argues that the unique function of human beings is the ability to reason and apply practical wisdom. Our highest human capacity is rationality. Unlike plants and animals which act on instinct, humans can think, analyze, and direct their actions deliberately based on reason. Therefore, Aristotle concludes that to achieve happiness and fulfill our purpose, we must act by reason, exercising our faculties to their utmost potential. The virtuous or excellent person directs their life thoughtfully, guided by practical reason. They fulfill the human function better than anyone else. Rational activity by virtue over a lifetime is the way to achieve our ultimate goal of happiness.

Virtue and the Golden Mean

For Aristotle, virtue is a mean between extremes. Virtue is acting moderately and thoughtfully, avoiding excess and deficiency. Aristotle argues that moral virtues are acquired through habit and practice. By repeatedly acting moderately, we develop the virtuous habits that lead to a good life. A key example is courage. Courage is the mean between the vices of cowardice and recklessness. Cowards are deficient in courage, facing danger but yielding to fear. Reckless people have an excess of courage, often taking dangerous risks for no good reason. The courageous person feels fear in the face of danger but controls their fear and acts for the right reasons, such as defending others. They face their fears but have the wisdom to do so in a thoughtful manner. Other virtues also involve finding the mean between extremes. For example, we should be generous but avoid extravagance. Pride can lead to arrogance and vanity which we should avoid but so too should we avoid excessive humility which can undermine our self-worth. Finding the sweet spot between pride and humility allows for proper self-esteem. The virtues all involve this kind of thoughtful balance, meeting challenges with patience, asserting ourselves with kindness, and living reasonably. Through practice, we can learn to act in the right way at the right time for the right reasons, developing the excellent moral character that is central to Aristotle’s vision of happiness.

Key Virtues for Happiness

Aristotle believed that to achieve happiness and fulfill our function as human beings, we need to cultivate virtue and good character. He identified several key virtues that are most important for human flourishing:

  • Wisdom (phronesis) – This intellectual virtue involves having practical judgment and the ability to deliberate well. Wisdom allows us to reason correctly about how to live well overall.
  • Courage (andreia)- The virtue of bravery in the face of fear. With courage, we can do what is noble in spite of danger. Courage helps us fulfill our best human qualities.
  • Self-control (temperance)- The ability to control our desires and passions. Self-control prevents excess and allows us to act according to reason.
  • Justice (dikaiosyne) – Giving each person their fair due. Justice at both the individual and community levels allows human beings to live ethically.

For Aristotle, virtues are not innate but must be cultivated through habitual action. We learn how to be virtuous by practicing virtuous behavior under the guidance of appropriate role models. The development of virtue is key to achieving eudaimonia and our ultimate human purpose. By repeatedly acting courageously, with wisdom, self-control, and justice, these virtues become entrenched dispositions. Virtue allows human beings to fulfill our function well and aim at the highest good in all that we do.

The Role of Pleasure

Aristotle argues that pleasure alone cannot constitute happiness. While pleasure is desirable and can contribute to the good life, pleasure must be tempered with virtue in order to lead to true happiness.
The excessive pursuit of physical pleasures such as food, drink, and sex can easily lead one astray from virtuous habits and actions. Overindulgence corrupts the soul and prevents the cultivation of virtue. Therefore, pleasure must always be balanced with reason and moderation. For Aristotle, the highest pleasures are not physical but rather intellectual and contemplative. The pleasure that arises from philosophical reflection and insight is more valuable and enduring than fleeting carnal pleasures. While bodily pleasures have their place, they cannot complete human happiness. Ultimately, virtue enables us to experience pleasure in the right way, at the right time, and in proper proportion. Moderation allows us to gain pleasure through acting virtuously, rather than allowing the pursuit of pleasure to distract us from excellent moral choices and habits. So pleasure is an important component of the good life, but only when subject to the greater virtues that make happiness possible.


Aristotle believed that friendship is necessary for happiness and that friends play an essential role in living virtuously. According to Aristotle, true friendship is based on goodness and striving for excellence. Friends who are virtuous enrich our lives and inspire us to be ethical. Aristotle wrote, “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” The highest form of friendship for Aristotle is one based on mutual goodwill between two virtuous people. This type of complete friendship is rare and takes time to develop as we get to know someone’s character. But it is this deepest friendship that helps us achieve eudaimonia.
Aristotle said that friendship involves shared activities and that we cannot know ourselves without reflecting in the mirror of a friend’s image. It is through our friends that we can exercise our virtues and become better human beings. For example, we demonstrate generosity by sharing with a friend, loyalty by keeping secrets, and thoughtfulness by offering advice.
The virtue and care shown between close friends allows for not just pleasure but a type of human perfection. True friends wish the good for one another and help each other flourish. Aristotle called these complete, virtuous friendships “one soul in two bodies.” For him, perfect friendship was one of the highest aims in life.

Contemplation and the Philosophic Life

For Aristotle, the highest form of happiness is found in contemplation. Contemplation allows human beings to exercise their capacity for theoretical wisdom and engage the divine element within themselves. The philosophic life spent pursuing truth through contemplation is the most perfect happiness, according to Aristotle. This is because contemplation aligns with our highest human capacity – our ability to reason. It allows us to fulfill our true purpose and reflect the divine in a way that other activities cannot.
However, Aristotle maintains that contemplation still requires moral virtue. To achieve true happiness, we must cultivate wisdom along with virtues like courage, generosity, and justice. A philosopher may contemplate theoretical truths but without moral uprightness, his happiness will be imperfect. A combination of contemplation and moral virtue is required to fully actualize human potential and achieve the pinnacle of happiness. Though mundane life cannot always allow for pure contemplation, Aristotle believes we should pursue it as far as possible. Contemplation brings deep and abiding happiness because it taps into the best and truest parts of human nature while connecting us to realities far greater than ourselves. Our ultimate purpose is to reflect the cosmic order through both moral nobility and philosophical contemplation.

Impact and Application

Aristotle’s work on happiness and virtue has had an enduring impact over the centuries. His concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, as the highest aim in life influenced philosophical and ethical thought for generations. Though the specifics of his ethics are grounded in 4th century BCE ancient Greek society, the principles resonate today. Aristotle’s emphasis on developing moral and intellectual virtues to achieve well-being and fulfill one’s human purpose can be seen as a practical philosophy of living the good life. His views on happiness being based on acting in accordance with reason and cultivating excellence of character are applicable. The idea of finding meaning through activities that exercise our distinct abilities remains relevant. Aspects of Aristotle’s ethics like the doctrine of the mean and the importance of friendship have been incorporated into modern virtue theories. His thoughts on contemplation as the highest form of human activity connect to philosophical questions on the significance of wisdom, self-reflection and intellectual pursuits. Though not without criticism, Aristotle’s work laid the foundation for major strands of Western ethical and philosophical thought. It offers valuable perspective to reflect on what constitutes a life well lived.