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Philosophy of happiness

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Philosophy of happiness

Greek philosophers (Socrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippus, Epicurus).

The philosophy of happiness is an umbrella term for the various philosophical approaches to explaining the nature of happiness, as well as how to attain it. Both the classic Western philosophy (Ancient philosophy) and the Eastern philosophy since its inception deal with the subject of happiness.

Happiness in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks

Diogenes with a lamp.


Socrates (* 469 BC in Athens, † 399 BC) played a fundamental role in the development of Western thinking. Almost all the major philosophical schools of antiquity have to rely on Socrates. Michel de Montaigne called him the "master of masters" and Karl Jaspers wrote, "Socrates to have in mind is one of the essential conditions of our philosophy".[1]

Socrates is widely regarded as the spiritual father of today's scientific thought. He advocated reason and was highly involved with deciphering truth. What is true and what is wrong? What is the way of a true life? Socrates had no ready answers. He left it to each of his students to find their own truth. Three things he gave them along the way:

  1. Keep interested in the truth
  2. Make sure that your soul is as good as possible
  3. To get a good soul, maintain the four virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and justice (charity).[2]

Aristippus of Cyrene

Perhaps the first philosopher who has developed a complete philosophy of happiness was Aristippus. He was a student of Socrates, but adopted a very different philosophical outlook, teaching that the goal of life was to seek external pleasure. Aristippus lived luxuriously. He is considered the founder of hedonism.


Antisthenes (c. 445 BCE – c. 365 BCE) was also a student of Socrates. He adopted and developed the ethical side of Socrates' teachings, advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue. Later writers regarded him as the founder of Cynic philosophy. His most important disciple was Diogenes, who lived after a legend in a barrel. The way of happiness of Antisthenes is similar to the Enlightenment philosophy of Buddhism, Indian Yoga and Chinese Taoism. Through a life of peace, simplicity, naturalness, modesty and virtue (mental work) dissolve the inner tensions. Inner happiness and enlightenment appear. We find Antisthenes praising the pleasures which spring "from out of one's soul."[3]


Plato lived from 428/427 BC to 348/347 BC in Athens. He was a student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. According to Plato, the human soul consists of three parts: the reason, the will and the desire. A man is happy when all three parts of the soul are in balance.

Plato thought about how to build a good society. He proposed to transfer the leadership of a society to the wise. One could say that science (the philosophy of happiness) should be the center of happy society.


Epicurus meditating.

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace, freedom from fear, the absence of pain, and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. A life after Epicurus (341-270 BC) is happy when you live everything in the right degree. Everyone should know his point of enough. "Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little."[4]

Epicureans are often confused with hedonists. Both are completely different philosophical paths. An Epicurean embodies a moderate path of asceticism and a hedonist a path of extreme external pleasure.[5]

Epicurus taught positive thinking. A life will be happy when we constantly train positive thinking. Epicurus called it "philosophize". A person should philosophize every day. One should think about the meaning of life and reflect again and again to his positive goals.

Inner happiness comes from inner peace. When a person calms down, inner happiness appears. Epicurus recommended it to live in inner peace, "Then you live like a God among your unwise fellow men,"[6] which an Epicurean also helps on the way: "The friendship dances around the globe, all of us announcing that we shall awaken to bliss."[7]


Aristotle, a student of Plato, held eudaimonia, frequently translated as happiness, to be the ultimate aim of human thought and action. The reasoning behind this in his Nicomachean Ethics is that all other things which are held to be valuable, such as wealth, intelligence, and courage, are valued only in relation to other things, rather than being valued on their own, and that happiness is the only thing valuable in isolation. The common translation of eudaimonia as happiness has been greatly contested, with alternatives such as welfare or human flourishing being proposed. The word's components are "eu" meaning well, and "daimon" meaning spirit or divinity, though Aristotle does not explicitly concern himself with the etymology.[8]

Although there is a superficial similarity between Aristotelian and Epicurean thought in that they both value happiness above all else, they differ enormously in what they conceive to be happiness. Aristotle regarded virtue as necessary for a person to be happy, and held that without virtue the most that may be attained is contentment, while for Epicurus happiness was merely rational hedonism. 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 the moral skepticism Plato does through the character of Thrasymachus in his Republic.[8]

Happiness in the philosophy of the middle ages

Augustine Baptism.

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), was Bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria). He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province. His writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity. In the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, he is a saint and pre-eminent Doctor of the Church, and the patron of the Augustinian religious order.

Augustine wrote a whole book The Happy Life about human happiness. The ultimate goal of all human endeavor lies in happiness. Happiness man can receive but not by satisfaction of goods of this world. Lasting happiness is possible only by living in God. God is the greatest happiness that a man can achieve, "for God has created us to him and our heart is restless until it rests in God."[9]

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, was a Christian theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century, the author of the Corpus Areopagiticum. He is identified as "Dionysos" in the corpus, which later came to be attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. In the so-called Mystical theology, it is primarily Dionysius the Areopagite, who deals with the idea of happiness. According to him, the human soul longs for God. This yearning can be satisfied only by the mystical union with God. Over the three steps purity (katharsis), enlightenment (photismos) and completion (teleiosis) can one reach the knowledge of God.

"For by this ecstasy, (...) you will, after you have everything removed and detached, brought to the real ray of the divine shadow."[10] "The divine darkness is the inaccessible light, in which God lives. In it are all who have become worthy to recognize God."[11] "It is necessary to (... ) go into the darkness, to find the one that is beyond all."[12]

Meister Eckhart

Eckhart von Hochheim, known as Meister Eckhart (c. 1260; † c. 1327) was a late medieval theologian and philosopher. Meister is German for "Master", referring to the academic title Magister in theologia he obtained in Paris. He is an important link between Western philosophy and Eastern religions, because he had an impersonal image of God, which he taught people to meditate upon (God can be found in the silence).

"A man should not be content to have an imaginary God. (...) Those who have God in being, (...) God shines in all things, all things taste like God, and God is seen in all things. (...) This needs zeal and devotion and a close attention to the inside. (...) One has to learn an inner loneliness, wherever one is. (...) Surely if you want to master this, you have to practice a lot and often."[13]

For Meister Eckhart meditation is helpful to get a life in God, "Know indeed. Standing quite still and as long as possible, this is your very best."[14] At the same time, it is also important to walk the way of charity, "As Mary sat at the feet of our Lord , she learned. (...) But later, when Christ had gone to heaven, and she had received the Holy Spirit, (...) she taught and became a servant of the disciples."[15]

Happiness in modern philosophy

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (*1533, †1592) was a French politician and philosopher. He is considered the most important successor of Epicurus. At the age of 38, he moved back from working life in order to devote himself to philosophy. He thought thoroughly about himself and his life, thereby creating his famous Essais. Stoic contempt of outward appearances, criticism of the human arrogance and natural skepticism of any dogma characterize the Essais. Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly — his own judgment. He wrote, "The enjoyment of life requires a deliberate handling with it. I enjoy my life twice as much as the others."[16] "Philosophy makes those who are devoted to her, happy and cheerful."[17]

Like Epicurus, the center of the art of life for Montaigne was in finding the right balance. But Montaigne turned to pleasure much more than Epicurus. Epicurus preferred to live as a single; Montaigne was married. "I think it's equally wrong to reject the natural desires, as to hang too much on them."[18]

Arthur Schopenhauer

Jeremy Bentham, The greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Arthur Schopenhauer (*1788, † 1860) was a German philosopher, author and lecturer. He established a system of empirical and metaphysical pessimism. The world for him was a "vale of tears, full of suffering. All happiness is an illusion. Life oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between the pain and boredom".[19] "Each life history is a story of suffering, a continuing series of large and small accidents."[20]

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, that results in an empty longing. He also links happiness with the movement of time, as in we feel happy when times moves faster, and feel sad when time slows down. [21]

Schopenhauer taught pessimism as a way to happiness. He found inspiration in Buddhism.

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (* 1748 † 1832) was an English jurist, philosopher and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He is best known for his advocacy of animal rights, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression and equal rights for women. He is considered the founder of classical utilitarianism. The greatest happiness for the greatest number (greatest-happiness-principle) is the guiding principle of Bentham's ethics. An act is therefore morally right if it is good for many people. For Bentham, the quantity of happiness was the deciding factor. His student John Stuart Mill represented, that cultural, intellectual and spiritual satisfaction also own a qualitative value.

The current philosophy of happiness

Today's philosophy of happiness is strongly influenced by happiness research. Happiness research is the quantitative study of happiness, positive and negative effects, well-being, quality of life and life satisfaction. The field has grown substantially since the late 20th century. The Greek thinkers are still current, but positive thinking is also very important in its various forms (see Self-help, Positive psychology). Joseph Murphy, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson, Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama are well known. They sold many books in the West and some are often seen on TV.

Ludwig Marcuse

Professor Ludwig Marcuse (1894–1971) was a German philosopher who wrote an important contemporary book on the philosophy of happiness. In it he told humorous stories of many Western philosophers of happiness. He believed that there are only some moments of happiness in life, but that great permanent happiness does not exist.[22] With this statement he is in opposition to many spiritual philosophers (Gautama Buddha, Laozi, Meister Eckhart, Patanjali).

Jonathan Haidt; The ethics of transcendence, and practical living

Jonathan Haidt is an American psychology professor. He wrote the 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis in which he combines ancient philosophical and spiritual knowledge with the latest happiness research. In it he argues that, whilst in the 1990s psychologists agreed with ancient sages (such as Buddha and Epictetus) that external conditions are not what matters, we now know that some external circumstances do matter. He identifies ways of improving happiness by altering these, including spending money well, and argues that the Western emphasis on action and striving is not without merit.

His main teaching is the ethics of transcendence (living in God).

Haidt sees himself as an atheist, who does not believe in God, but advocates for reasons of inner happiness and health positive spiritual values, "If we rely on balanced wisdom - old and new, eastern and western, liberal and conservative - we can choose directions in our life that lead to satisfaction, happiness and a sense of purpose."[23]

Nozick and the experience machine

One contemporary thought experiment that has direct relevance to the philosophy of happiness is the experience machine thought experiment that was created by the American philosopher Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, Utopia. The thought experiment gives you the option to enter a machine that would give you the maximum amount of unending hedonistic pleasure for the rest of your life. But since most people would prefer not to take this kind of deal if offered shows that hedonistic pleasure is not the ultimate goal of human life, and that happiness or "the good life" therefore requires more than maximisation of pleasure.

Positive psychology emphasizes positive values

Sonja Lyubomirsky is one of America's happiness researchers. She is a professor and wrote the international bestseller The How of Happiness.[24] She wondered what one can do if one wants to get a happy life. She accepted that, after the current state of research about 50% of a given human's happiness level is genetically determined. About 10% of happiness is affected by external living conditions, but 40% of happiness can be influenced by the mind of a person.

According to Lyubomirsky, the secret of lasting happiness is to turn our attention mainly to that 40% and constantly maintain our inner happiness. We should exercise regularly, avoid negative thoughts and encourage positive thoughts, maintain our social relationships and have a positive task in our lives. Many studies demonstrate the positive effects of meditation on our happiness, "Meditate every day. Begin with five minutes and increase to up to 20 minutes a day."[25]

Sonja Lyubomirsky developed a twelve-point program for personal happiness. The main point for her is [26]

A happy society

Richard Layard (born 15 March 1934) is a British economist. He was founder-director in 1990 of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. He argues that people in the West could live happier lives, if instead of focusing on the growth of the outer wealth, they concentrated on the growth of inner happiness. At the moment the unbridled selfishness destroys the growth of general happiness. People in the West need a new philosophy on the basis of the happiness research. The goal should be the greatest happiness of all.[27]

Layard stated, "Although the people in the West have for decades got richer, they have not become happier. (...) Studies show that people are not happier today than 50 years ago. And this is despite the fact that the real median income in this period has more than doubled."[28] On the contrary, people are getting richer externally, and internally unhappier. The likelihood of suffering from a clinical depression is now ten times as large as a century ago.[29]

Bhutan is a small landlocked country in South Asia, located at the eastern end of the Himalayas and bordered to the south, east and west by the Republic of India and to the north by the People's Republic of China. Gross national happiness (GNH) is a concept introduced by the King of Bhutan in 1972 as an alternative to the Gross domestic product. Although the GNH framework reflects its Buddhist origins, it is based upon the empirical research of happiness, positive psychology and wellbeing. The philosophy of happiness of Bhutan rests on four pillars: a healthy environment, a good economy, a democratic government and the anchoring in a positive religion/culture.

Happiness vs. Meaning

Psychology has defined happiness as subjective well-being however some theorists disagree with this and instead promote the idea of the meaningful life being as important or more important than a happy (cheerful) one.[30]

See also


  1. ^ Eva-Maria Kaufmann: Sokrates. Munich 2000, p. 93 (Montaigne), p. 8 (Jaspers).
  2. ^ Plato, Apologie, Stuttgart 1982, p. 36
  3. ^ Xenophon, Symposium, iv. 41.
  4. ^ Johannes Mewaldt: Epikur. Philosophie der Freude. Stuttgart 1973, page 71.
  5. ^ Philosophy of Happiness (Wikiversity)
  6. ^ Johannes Mewaldt, ibid, page 48.
  7. ^ Johannes Mewaldt, ibid, page 70.
  8. ^ a b Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
  9. ^ Augustinus: Confessiones 1,1
  10. ^ Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Über mystische Theologie, I.1.
  11. ^ Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, letter V
  12. ^ Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, About mystical theology, I.3.
  13. ^ Josef Quint (Hrsg.): Meister Eckehart. Deutsche Predigten und Traktate. München 1979, s.60 f.
  14. ^ Quint, supra, 435th page
  15. ^ Quint, supra, 289th page
  16. ^ Josef M. Werle: Epikur für Zeitgenossen. Munich 2002, 2 Edition, page 107.
  17. ^ Josef M. Werle, supra, page 96.
  18. ^ Josef M. Werle , Supra, page 99
  19. ^ Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea. Cologne 1997, Volume One, §. 56th.
  20. ^ Arthur Schopenhauer, supra, §. 59th.
  21. ^ Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea. Cologne 1997, Volume One, §. 52th.
  22. ^ Ludwig Marcuse, Die Philosophie des Glücks. 1949.
  23. ^ Jonathan Haidt, page 315.
  24. ^ Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness. 2007.
  25. ^ Sonja Lyubomirsky, supra, 257th page.
  26. ^ Sonja Lyubomirsky, ibid, page 103 et seq.
  27. ^ Richard Layard, Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, page 142.
  28. ^ Richard Layard, Happiness, page 13.
  29. ^ Sonja Lyubomirsky, ibid, page 49
  30. ^ Ryff, Carol D. (1 January 1989). "Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (6): 1069–1081.  

Further reading

  • Dalai Lama, co-authored with Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness, 2003.
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, 2005.
  • Richard Layard, Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, 2005.
  • Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. 2007.
  • Ludwig Marcuse: Philosophie des Glücks. Paul List Verlag, München 1962.
  • Matthieu Ricard, (2006).Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill,

External links

Works related to Life of Epicurus at Wikisource

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