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Happiness and the Good Life Essay

What is the relation between living a good life and being happy? To many, the good life is a financially prosperous life, and happiness lies in the possession of wealth. Worldly success is what counts, and anyone who is not ‘successful’ in the usual sense is counted a ‘failure.’ Others strive for a life based on honor and public recognition. A good life is made up of hobnobbing with the right people in the right settings, and happiness is a matter of gaining respect. Along with these, there are lives that show by their living a desire for glory or power that inspires great efforts. Others, who are not drawn to wealth, power or glory because of the difficulties involved in attaining them, may choose the pursuit of pleasure. A good and happy life is one in which pleasures outweigh the pains overall. Many questions have been asked about the good life and happiness. People constantly answer those questions with their lives, and we see many different ideas of the good life and happiness playing out in the strivings of human beings to live well and be happy.

The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in this life. These two, they thought, held the keys to human felicity. Doing well concerns ourselves, our own actions and feelings. We have some control over these aspects of our lives. So when we wish someone to ‘do well’ in life, we express the hope that the person will be moral and fair in his or her dealings with others. Beyond securing basic physical survival, someone who does well in life can sleep with a clear conscience, whether blessed with material success or not. From many a philosophical point of view, the good life has an intrinsically moral core that involves compassion for the suffering of others and acting justly in the world.

‘Faring well’ concerns events and occurrences over which we do not have so much control. “Faring well” means succeeding in life, coming into a prosperous condition, with all the benefits that come with money and social acceptance. Someone who is faring well in life has had a bit of good luck. It is possible to do everything right in order to succeed, but still fail to do so. For example, you can study hard for your degree, get your professional qualifications, work diligently, become competent, but still not succeed. The cards may not fall your way. As Sartre says, “You are free to try, but not to succeed.” This seems right to me, and so I will come down with Aristotle against Plato on this point, that doing well is not all that is involved in attaining happiness in life.

Plato’s Socrates famously says that the good person cannot be harmed, that virtue is knowledge, and that happiness consists entirely of doing well and being just. Aristotle argues that a degree of luck plays into our happiness. He insists that most of our happiness is in our own hands, but that it can be affected by outside circumstances. So while being happy is mostly a matter of ‘doing well’ (and ‘thinking well’), great misfortunes can damage our happiness. It may be that such a person, by ‘doing well,’ will attain a degree of dignity in suffering, but he will not be happy; or, as Aristotle has it, ‘blessed.’

In light of this result, I hazard an intuitive philosophical account of the relation between the good life and happiness. Living a good life is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for happiness. In other words, it is possible to live a good life without being happy, but not happy without living a good life. This a ‘philosophical’ account of the relation because many philosophers have a particular idea of happiness and the good life that is not shared by everyone, with their emphasis on clarity of thought and sound reasoning.

In addition, though philosophers recommend the philosophical life as both the happiest and the best, they are not in a position to legislate for everyone what happiness must be. Nevertheless, the traditional philosophical view is not without support. All we have to do is look at the results of many lives that strive for wealth, power, fame, glory or pleasure. So many disasters befall those who pursue a good life with no moral core, or reflective turn of mind, that it makes some sense, as philosophers argue, to pursue the wisdom to recognize the good life, and, within that life, such happiness human beings can attain.


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