What is happiness? In this article, we will examine this notion and see how stoics can advise us to reach the state of eudaimonia, the Aristotelian ethic of living well.
It is a common opinion that happiness is an individual feeling. We think that our happiness depends on reaching some goal. Our goals in life are different, and therefore happiness must mean different things for each of us.
Stoics would not agree with such an attitude to happiness.
Happiness is not simply an individual feeling because if that was the case, happiness couldn’t be shared. Stoics thought that a universal concept of happiness exists and it can be found in the mind. We all have the same basic need to be happy and stoics mapped out where it lies.
It is wrong to think that happiness can be measured and that some people are happier or less happy than others. There are no varying degrees of happiness. In other words, you are either happy or not. Stoics thought so, and they weren’t wrong. Because, when we are happy, we don’t stop to compare our happiness with someone else’s.
Now, we will address the notion of happiness in stoic philosophy. It all starts with the mind and our perceptions, so let’s begin.
Mind and Eudaimonia
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.Marcus Aurelius
In Greek philosophy, including the Stoics, eudaimonia represented the highest goal in reaching happiness. The Greek origin of the word eudaimonia means being on good terms (eu) with your highest self (daimon).
Stoic eudaimonia is recognized as the insight of living in accordance with nature. This is the main stoic principle from which happiness becomes possible. Living in accordance with nature is living in accordance with mind, which means living a virtuous life.
Happiness and well being lie within us, not in external factors. Eudaimonia means happiness, which stems from our own contentment and as such is permanent.
Virtue is happiness and being virtuous is reaching the psychological state of eudaimonia. However, the reward for virtue should be virtue itself.
One ought to seek out virtue for its own sake, without being influenced by fear or hope, or by any external influence. Moreover, that is what happiness consists of.Zeno of Citium
External influences on our character can’t help us to become virtuous and happy.
The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.Epictetus
Happiness comes from our reasonable conduct and behavior. And reason tells us that not all things are controllable. Mind and will are in our control, and our happiness depends on that knowledge.
In order to be happy, then, one must build that happiness on the foundation of its mind. Knowing what you can and can’t do is the first milestone of wisdom, which is one of the four cardinal virtues.
Ultimately, wisdom is the path to happiness
Through not observing what is in the mind of another, a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.Marcus Aurelius
If you are trying to control external things and events in order to be happy then all you are doing is feeding on your imagination. The present moment is of vital importance for Stoics. Consequently, our actions which can improve and lead to our best selves are only possible in the present. Focus your energy on the present moment, and act in the best way possible.
The last thing we would like to mention is the problematic relationship of our lives and fate. Stoics believed that fate exists and that everything is preordained. Humans, as creatures gifted with reason, can choose to accept fate or to deny it.
The biggest misfortune for your soul is to deny fate. All Stoics agreed with that. The hubris of living as if the world revolves around you, and that it can be unjust, triggers rage and fear, which leads to suffering.
The wise person accepts fate and will never oppose it because they know that everything that happens is indifferent to us. They will choose to hold onto their mind and not to be shaken by external and uncontrollable things. They will work on themselves to strengthen their mind and character in order to stay virtuous and strong against the winds of formidable fate. And that equanimity in changing situations is ultimately the key to wisdom and consequently happiness.
Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.Seneca