Better Things Than Happiness

Aristotle wrote that happiness proceeds from a complete life. To that end, it would be presumptuous for me, a twenty-something, far from having lived a complete life, to believe I have anything to say about happiness. And indeed, I don’t presume that I do. What I know of happiness I learned from a wise man who had already lived a complete life.

I was twenty-one when I learned this lesson, a senior in college and hopelessly undecided about my future. My worried dithering with regards to this fact often fell upon the ears of a long-suffering political science professor. One fall afternoon, I sat in his office, perched on the edge of the well-worn chair across from his desk, one foot tapping, expressing for the hundredth time that semester my anxiety about the future. My professor often just listened, knowing as only teachers and parents do that young people sometimes just need to be heard. “I don’t know what I want to be,” I sighed. “I just want to be happy!”

My professor tilted his head and squinted at me in a familiar way that told me I’d gotten something wrong. He was silent for a moment, measuring his words in his mind. I had known this professor long enough to value his careful consideration. His next words would mean something. I waited. He leaned forward and said plainly, “you can be so many better things than happy.”

You can be so many better things than happy, he said. I remember feeling confused and disappointed. It was unfathomable to me what he could have meant by that, and moreover, to the extent that I could understand him at all, I thought he must be wrong. I had grown up in an age of self-help, in which happiness was considered the ultimate good. Happiness was the end that could justify any means. It was a viable reason to quit your job, move cross country, leave your marriage. It meant eating, praying, and loving. It meant safety from doubt and regret.

Alternatively, an unhappy life could be no life at all. And so, I wanted to be happy. How or why, or at what cost, I could not say. But it was surely the best and most important thing I could imagine being. Everything else, I presumed, must be secondary. But my professor was a worldly, faithful, intelligent, and very dear friend. I could not ignore his words, even if accepting them would mean challenging the organizational principle with which I had been attempting to build my future. It was the first time anyone had ever given me reason to reconsider the central role that the pursuit of happiness had held in my heart. That day, my professor set in motion a shift in my perception of the world, one that I could not understand at that instant, but I would come to know in time.

About a year after my professor told me I could be better things than happy, I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As I did, I could not help but remember his words. Aristotle writes of happiness as eudaimonia, but “happiness” is a poor substitute for the richness described by this term. Eudaimonia refers to a sense of wholeness, of completeness, and of peace. It refers to a flawless harmony between the person and the world outside the person, and of ultimate achievement for the individual. It is happiness, yes, but something bigger and better too—it is perfection; perfect happiness.

The lucky few who achieve eudaimonic happiness can do so only after living most of their lives. In fact, Aristotle questions whether any man can experience eudaimonia prior to the moment of death. This is because the perfect happiness of eudaimonia emerges from a life well lived. It proceeds in part from the diligent practice of the virtues Aristotle lays out in the Nicomachean Ethics. Perfect happiness results from practical virtue, which orders the person within the world. Those who seek pure and perfect happiness, at least according to Aristotle, should first seek things like wisdom, courage, and moderation. It is through the development of the virtues, which strengthen and solidify our roles in the world around us, that we can hope to find happiness. The way to happiness, as I came to understand, is through more important things.

Perfect happiness cannot be found in pursuit of happiness. Eudaimonia comes only in the pursuit of better things.

In reading The Nicomachean Ethics, I also came to know that happiness is not something totally within human control. While Aristotle writes that citizens can increase their chances at eudaimonic happiness through behaving virtuously, eudaimonia also depends on the coincidences of life—on fortune. Sometimes, simply being at the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong time) is enough to change the trajectory of a life. I took my first class with the professor mentioned in this essay because I needed to fulfill a credit requirement; by fate or by fortune I received much more than that. Virtue gives humans a shot at happiness, but happiness also requires an openness to the happenstance of life—a willingness to make the best of bad things that happen to you and take notice of the good things as they occur. Our attempts to tame happiness, to seize it and tie it down as if it were something that we can master, prevent us from knowing the nature of eudaimonia, which is bound up in chance.

In the intervening years since that day in his office, I have never doubted that my professor cared about my happiness. It’s in large part due to his guidance that I have my job and get to do work that I love. He was present on my happiest of all days, when I married my husband, a man of whom my professor always deeply approved. He wanted me to be happy. He just didn’t want happiness to be the most important thing I wanted for myself. Happiness is not an end in the way we have made it out to be. It is not a journey. It is a byproduct of better and more important things. In desiring my eventual eudaimonic happiness, my professor told me to seek better things first.

And so, I know happiness only because I know where to look for it. The best way to find happiness is not by pursuing happiness itself, but by pursuing better things than happiness. My happiness in my work proceeds from my pursuit of wisdom through research, from my fellowship with my colleagues, from my nurturing of my students. My happiness in my marriage flows from the deep and abiding friendship I share with my husband, our faithfulness, loyalty, and tenderness to one another, and our hope for our future together. And this is what my professor meant that day in his office.

It would have been a waste of my life to think that “happy” was the best thing I could be, when I could instead be wise, responsible, faithful, loyal, tender, hopeful, or any number of good and virtuous things first. Pursuing things better than happiness does not ensure everlasting happiness. Philosophers have long remarked that the road to virtue is often an arduous one. But this is the only way to achieve happiness that goes beyond mere temporal satisfaction; this is the only way to achieve a happiness that can sate our souls.

When we put happiness at the center of our hearts and use it to guide us, we rely on the thinnest possible definition of the word. In our dogged pursuit of happiness, we get only a shadow of what we desire. Perfect happiness cannot be found in pursuit of happiness. Eudaimonia comes only in the pursuit of better things. And so, I have learned to heed the words of my professor every day of my life. While I am indeed happy, I am so many better things first.