The key to happiness, according to the greatest philosophers in history

Happiness , one of the most sought after experiences in human life, has been the subject of philosophical inquiry since ancient times. Philosophers from different cultures and times have pondered the nature of happiness, trying to define it and identify the means to achieve it. We start this historical journey for happiness from the Greek polymath Aristotle of Stagira and we end with the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill in the 19th century.

Aristotle and eudaimonia

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the ultimate goal of human life was to achieve eudaimonia , often translated as «happiness» or «flourishing «. For Aristotle, happiness was not simply a transitory emotional state, but an active and continuous process of living a virtuous and fulfilling life: «Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue,» dictates one of his most famous phrases. . According to the father of Western philosophy (along with Plato), happiness could be achieved through the cultivation of moral virtues, the development of intellectual abilities, and participation in satisfying social relationships.. Thus, a life of moderation, guided by reason and balance, were the keys to achieving eudaimonia. Criticism of Aristotle’s vision highlights that while the philosopher recognized that external factors, which may be beyond one’s control, can significantly affect one’s ability to achieve happiness, critics argue that this recognition of the role of luck undermines the view that happiness depends entirely on one’s actions and moral virtues.

Epicurus and hedonism

Let’s go on with the view of another ancient Greek philosopher. What was happiness for Epicurus of Samos? He proposed that happiness was the result of experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain. His philosophy, known as hedonism, focused on the search for physical and mental pleasures to achieve happiness: « We recognize pleasure as the first innate good in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using feeling as the standard by which we judge all good”, in the words of the Greek sage. However, Epicurus did not advocate mindless indulgence, instead emphasizing the importance of a simple life, friendship, and the cultivation of wisdom to achieve happiness.

Immanuel Kant and the moral search for happiness

Can you ever be completely happy? This 18th century German philosopher believed that happiness was a complex and multifaceted concept that could not be reduced to a single definition or pursuit. According to Kant, happiness was a by-product of living a morally virtuous life, guided by the universal principles of ethics: «Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of the imagination,» Kant said. For him, happiness was not an end in itself but a consequence of fulfilling one’s duties and adhering to moral principles.

John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism

Jumping to the 19th century we find the ideas of a British philosopher. John Stuart Mill proposed that happiness was the ultimate goal of human life and the guiding principle of moral actions . Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism postulated that the correct action is the one that leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people: «The creed that accepts as the foundation of morality, Utility, or the Principle of the Greatest Happiness, holds that actions are right to the extent that they tend to promote happiness, and wrong to the extent that they tend to produce the opposite of happiness,» in his own words. Mill’s utilitarian perspective emphasized the importance of social welfare and collective happiness as the basis for ethical decision-making; thus, all those who wish to achieve happiness must pursue pleasure. “Happiness is understood as pleasure, and the absence of pain; for unhappiness the pain and the absence of pleasure… . But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is based: namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends”, in the purest hedonistic style .