Aristotle and Happiness, the Ultimate Goal

Much to the surprise of many, for more than 2,000 years, philosophers have been reflecting on issues that we're still thinking about today. One of them concerns the happiness of the community and the individual.
Aristotle and Happiness, the Ultimate Goal
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 15 March, 2023

We all want to be happy. However, what exactly is happiness? Aristotle posed this question centuries ago. In this article, we’re going to review some of his conclusions.

In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle built his theory on happiness and the good life. This work belongs to ethics, a branch of philosophy that asks questions such as: What’s evil? What’s good? How can we act correctly? How can we have a happy life despite the ups and downs of existence?

In this article, we’ll submerge ourselves in Aristotle’s ethics, thoughts that remain valid today.

Happiness according to Aristotle

Aristotle believed that happiness was a central concept. In the aforementioned book, the philosopher argued that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life. But, what did he mean?

All human action is composed of means and ends. For example, if your end is to eat (you’re hungry), then the means will be all those actions that you carry out to satisfy your need. This could involve thinking about what you want to eat, what ingredients you need, buying and cooking them, etc.

According to Aristotle, as humans, we have an ultimate goal. In other words, the set of means and ends that we’ve carried out throughout our lives all aim toward a certain point. Therefore, if you ask an old man if he’s had a happy life, his answer will include all the actions that he’s carried out throughout his existence.

Aristotle believed that young people can’t aspire to happiness in the way he proposed, since it can only be accessed through practice and experience. However, children and young people are at a previous stage, where learning dominates. The more experience they accumulate, the closer they get to achieving happiness, understood by Aristotle as the ultimate goal of life.

African American woman smiles
Aristotle believed that happiness is possible with practice and experience.

Virtue and happiness

For Aristotle, virtue was another important concept, since by aspiring to it we can achieve happiness. Virtue is the optimal or excellent performance of a function or action. These actions are our character habits, the actions that form us as virtuous people. We might consider them to be either good or bad.

Therefore, Aristotle believed that happiness is a state of complete well-being achieved through the practice of virtue. It’s complete because it’s the only thing that’s required for life to have value in itself.

Aristotle was of the opinion that virtue is achieved through practice and habit. In effect, it’s an exercise. He claimed that we’re not born virtuous, but we become so. Consequently, he believed that we don’t achieve happiness by chance, but it’s the result of constant and sustained effort.

Ethical virtues and happiness

Aristotle thought that ethical virtues, or excellence of character, are in continuous tension between will and reason. We mustn’t forget that he believed that reason and thought differentiates the function of man from other species. However, we know that, as humans, we’re not only endowed with intelligence, but we also have desires or passions.

For this reason, it’s important to highlight the role of habit in the path of ethical virtues and happiness. After all, we can’t forge virtuous actions and characters all at once. So, reason must regulate our desires to achieve virtue. How do we do it? Via another of Aristotle’s concepts: the midpoint or median.

The halfway point and the achievement of happiness

Aristotle claimed that virtue is the balance between two extremes. Excellence of character is achieved when the right harmony is found between these extremes, one of which is excess and the other is lack. For example, moderation is the midpoint or balance between its excess, which is licentiousness, and its lack, which is privation.

The more we strive to have balanced characters, the more we move toward the middle ground and avoid extremes. Only through the implementation of actions can we learn and acquire ethical virtues. For example, if we want to be fair, we must carry out fair acts.

Will and choice: the path to happiness

Aristotle considered that the actions that count are those that we carry out in full use of our freedom and full knowledge of the circumstances. Therefore, if someone is compelled to do something or does so under duress, that action isn’t morally relevant.

As well as habit, the midpoint is based on choice, which is the result of deliberation or reflection. Here, the means and ends have an important role. In fact, for any given end, we evaluate the best means to carry it out. Thus, thought can be considered as an action plan which, on the whole, leads us on the path to happiness.

walking feet
On the path to happiness, will and freedom are important.

Community and happiness according to Aristotle

Aristotle argued that happiness can’t be achieved in isolation, but is an integral part of a life well lived in a community. In effect, the happiness of the whole matters, not only the happiness of the isolated individual. Virtue is essential for living in harmony with others, and we achieve happiness when we live in virtuous communities.

Currently, Aristotle’s research in Nicomachean Ethics has been resumed to reflect on how his philosophy can help us to think, not only about our communities but also about education. As we mentioned earlier, the happiness of the isolated individual doesn’t matter as much as the happiness of the community.

Therefore, Aristotle was committed to an education of virtues in which prudence is the predominant virtue.

Aristotle and today’s concept of happiness

To sum up, we can say that Aristotle believed that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life and we achieve it through the practice of virtue. In turn, we achieve virtue through practice and habit. Furthermore, rational and intelligent choices for the execution of ends shape virtuous characters. Aristotle defined happiness as a state of balance and averageness. He believed that it’s essential to live in harmony in a virtuous community.

However, his explanation is far from the current, somewhat impatient, concept of happiness. In fact, for some, happiness involves obtaining material goods. For others, it’s the avoidance of certain sensations, such as pain.

As you can see, Aristotle had his own idea of happiness. Although it’s been many years since he formulated it, it’s still worth considering. Why not take what you want from it, consider what makes you happiest, and develop your own definition of happiness?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.