What is Happiness? (If You Know It, Clap Your Hands)

by The Cowl Editor on November 29, 2018


Photo of a student ordering from the Starbucks in the Ruane Center for the Humanities.
In times of stress, students can find happiness in the little things, like getting a coffee from Starbucks. Photo courtesy of Providence College.

by Elizabeth McGinn ’21

Opinion Staff


Happiness: a state of being or emotion ranging from contentment to joy. Associated with sunshine, holiday mornings, the smell of freshly baked cookies, and all other delightful moments.

While people generally search for this elusive emotion, what does it truly mean? Or can we even attain it?

In his Nicomachean Ethics, which many of us read in Development of Western Civilization, Aristotle articulates the classical definition of happiness. Eudaimonia, a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare, can only be achieved through virtue paired with reason. Reaching a state of eudaimonia is the highest human ideal.

Although many still pursue happiness as an end goal in life, the precise meaning of happiness is relative. It depends on values, experience, and personality.

What one might define as happiness might be abhorred by the next.

So what can happiness be for people today?

Success and happiness go hand in hand for many, often with wealth and status as coinciding elements.

The stereotypical recipe of success includes an impressive and prestigious job, hefty bank account, luxury cars and mansions: a mixture of recognition and money. Even with the highest-paying job or endless accolades, a critical piece of the puzzle is still missing.

Who will share in the joy of winning that coveted award? Or who will be there to help enjoy the fruits of labor? Connections with others, whether they are family, friends, or lovers, is a crucial aspect of happiness.

As social beings, we rely on the presence and company of people. Even the most “successful” person, without anyone at his or her side, can also be the most miserable.

Happiness, so far, consists of success and human connection. In contrast to Aristotle’s definition, this modern articulation lacks the concept of virtue.

While the particular idea of male excellence that Aristotle employs in virtue cannot be translated to modern day, his emphasis on morality still applies.

Because money is often associated with success, it is important to note the common saying that money cannot buy happiness.

Although money is necessary for survival, it is not the epitome of a happy life.

Instead, a person’s morals should value other things much more highly than money, such as compassion and generosity.

After all, the most evil people can boast of their bulging wallets and throngs of followers, but without a strong moral basis, they can never attain true happiness.

Happiness, then, is based on success, human connection, and morals. Although this general definition can apply to most people, can we actually achieve it?

The short, albeit pessimistic answer, is no. The ultimate, lofty ideal of happiness is only reserved for the select few who manage to align their cards in just the right manner.

An ideal is only the most perfect example, with reality often falling short. But the vast majority who do not correspond to the lucky few considered happy under this ideal are not hopeless.

On a day to day basis, happiness can be found in the smallest, but also most meaningful, moments. Rushing to Dunkin’ before a test to find there is no line, carefree laughter with friends at dinner, or jumping into bed at the end of a stressful day are all glimpses into true happiness.

Look for the small things, revel in them, and happiness can be only steps away.