Contrary to many people's understanding, genuine happiness is 100% within our own control no matter what outside issues we may encounter. During these particularly trying times of pandemic, protest, and plundering, it is more important than ever to be reminded of this truism.
In order to explore the subject properly we reach back in history to the greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle (384-322 BC). It is vital to recognize that this supreme thinker is not a formidable abstraction too difficult or lofty to understand. He was a real living, breathing, scowling, laughing man who developed his theories in his own time and place and certainly did not perceive himself as existing BC (Before Christ). Like others of his era he dated himself on synchronisms, e.g. "The war broke out right after the second year of the tenth Olympiad when so and so won the sprinting race." It is his idea of "eudaimonia" — self-created happiness — that we shall elucidate here to help us retain an internal serenity and keep the current cultural turbulence in perspective.
In Greek, the root "eu" means "good." "Daimonia" refers to one's guiding spirit or animating principle, the core value one holds from which all other values flow. In short, it means "human flourishing." Aristotle used it to describe happiness as an abiding inner state of fulfillment achieved by actively pursuing a virtuous life founded upon a rational value system.
He did not mean "happiness" as static contentment, nor momentary jollity, nor attainment of material possessions, nor special-event-occasioned periods of pleasure. The inbuilt purpose for humans, he maintained, is using our primary tool for survival — reason — to contemplate and learn factual knowledge (achieving intellectual virtue) and contemplate and learn through life experiences (achieving character virtue consonant with our nature as human beings capable of comprehending the world, other people, and ourselves). The goal? To live the good, the right, and the mentally/physically successful life of wellbeing.
In his Nicomachean Ethics ("Philosophy of the Ancients," Friedo Ricken, University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), Aristotle's point was specific and concise:
The end or good of human beings lies in the activity that the rational soul (psyche; mind) of human beings exercises due to its highest capabilities and in its best condition. Happiness consists not in having or receiving but rather in being active. Happiness requires effort. It is a function that human beings must exercise. The higher the exercised capabilities are, the more intense the experience of happiness will be.
"Happiness," then, is not "I feel good," but "I feel good because I am good" — meaning "I am the best I can be." Our best is a constantly evolving becoming activity because if we are virtuous — ever improving ourselves via self-reflection and expanding wisdom — we are never finished. We are always a "work-in-progress," and this is the forward motion of youth. Our bodies will age, but our minds and souls can always stay young through insatiable curiosity, constant learning, and experiencing the ineffable joys of living and loving on this earth here and now. Curiosity is the crucial crux for meaningful personal development and perennial self-actualization. If we do not maintain into adulthood an ever-renewing yearning for fresh knowledge and experiences — that epistemic hunger so natural to children — we not only shall age mentally along with our physical bodies, we also shall perish spiritually long before our physical demise.
Later in history, Epicurus concurred with Aristotle's moral ideal of virtuous mental activity as the definition of enduring happiness. He also stressed emotions (automatic pain-pleasure responses) as the criteria of value judgments. This explains why we react so intensely to aspects of nature, to art, and to other human beings. By experiencing our deepest root values in the form of an "other" that embodies those same values we are emotionally and physically celebrating our own intellect and our own achievement of mature personhood. In secular terms, this is a form of self-celebrating spirituality.
Religious spiritual experiences are based in faith and different from secular spiritual experiences, but all human beings must live in this real world; therefore, whatever one's religious or philosophical persuasion may be, connecting with one's individually chosen values via nature, art, and a romantically beloved "other" can bring rapturous joy to everyone. In my latest book SOUL CELEBRATIONS AND SPIRITUAL SNACKS*, these all inclusive experiences of thrilling, ecstatic "aliveness" are shown to reach attainment via specifically charted pathways leading to matchless self-celebrating bliss because they are personally stimulated from values deep within and brought to the surface for powerful emotional/physiological exaltation.
If, as Aristotle claimed, happiness is an activity rather than a static state or related to material possessions, special moments or events, then it follows that we must open our minds to curiosity, hone our powers of observation, broaden our knowledge, and stretch our capabilities (and imaginations) in order to become the best we each can be. In this way we achieve a Self — a soul — worthy of celebration.
So many people the world over seek "the meaning of life." But Aristotle advises us each to seize our own reins and "make life meaningful" by our individual thoughts and actions.
Self generated secular spiritual experiences of elation, empowerment, enlightenment, and mesmerizing awe are the euphoric rewards we reap by actualizing the most fundamental values that constitute our unique personhood. When we live a life of eudaimonia, always refining and expanding our awareness, knowledge, capabilities, and experiences, we enjoy a lifetime of spiritual grace enlivened by extended moments of soul celebrations that become ends unto themselves. These heightened experiences can become exhilarating and inspiring parts of a rich life of eudaimonia every precious day of our lives no matter what existential challenges we meet, even the disturbing and disruptive cultural upheavals we now endure. Self creation, self knowledge, and self nourishment will make it so.
*Parts of this article are excerpted from a chapter in the book: "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks".
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader's Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." Read Alexandra York's Reports — More Here.
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