Consistency, Repetition and Healthy Patterns: Creating Your Own Happiness
Aug 27, 2015 04:49PM
● By Victoria Pipas
Aristotle can be considered the father of the cultivation of personal happiness, at least in the Western philosophical tradition. His word for happiness is the Greek noun eudaimonia: not the fleeting joy gained from pleasure but the long-lasting fulfillment we hope will pervade our lives. Eudaimonia is not a particular achievement or stage of life, nor is it the same for every person. It’s the happiness found in living an ethical life as defined by our own singular experiences. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claimed, “happiness is good activity, not amusement.” He believed that the good things in life are those we desire for their own sakes, like happiness, and the means of achieving them must be the path to a good life. Happiness is good in itself, while all other things we seek, like wealth and honor, fall short because they’re only means to achieving another end.
You might apply this principle to your own life by examining those things you do for their own sakes. Maybe you love you job, and although you earn money from it, the work itself may be gratifying and fulfilling. Your work, then, is a source of happiness—you do it for its own sake. Think about other things you do for their own sakes. Do you enjoy volunteering in local organizations or picking your children up from school each day? If these are acts you do for their own sakes, then practice them often to cultivate happiness in your daily life.
Virtues, Aristotle points out, are self-fulfilling—when we act virtuously, we do it without thought of a reward. One who acts with virtue can achieve true eudaimonia, or “good spirit,” because he or she is cultivating character by performing habitual actions for their own sakes, that is, moral deeds. It’s these habits that define not only our moral character but also our happiness. We might also translate eudaimonia as “flourishing”— a constant growth and realization of our own happiness rather than a string of gratifying moments.
We can also turn to the founding of our nation for a path to happiness—a time people declared their right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Benjamin Franklin, one of the greatest thinkers of this auspicious time in American history, extolled self-discipline in practicing good habits. Virtues, he preached, were the “best guard” against the passions that we must suppress to avoid corruption and evil. Mercy, temperance, generosity, prudence, and others can outweigh and maybe even abolish any instinct to act selfishly, greedily, or unkindly. “Virtue is … the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body,” said Franklin. The practice of virtue is the active pursuit of happiness.
Franklin also recognized that happiness—that is, the greatest fulfillment of the human being and spirit—depends on the health of the body. While not sufficient for happiness, since “happiness springs immediately from the mind,” a healthy body allows “this happiness [to] be tasted pure and unabated.” Indeed, it’s easily recognized that our minds will not be satisfied until the needs of the body have been met. This doesn’t mean that we ought to seek physical gratification constantly; it means that we ought to seek to maintain a sound physical condition, one in which we are not only free from the distractions of the body’s needs but also better able to cultivate the fulfillment of the mind and soul.
You can use your body’s health as a launching point for cultivating your happiness. Examine the obstacles that lie between you and a healthy body. Do you need a gym membership to maintain a healthy body? Maybe it’s just a question of getting out for a 20-minute walk every afternoon or eating more vegetables and fruits. Whatever you need to maintain physical health, cultivate these acts daily for long-lasting effects. And to cement your cultivation of good habits, reflect at the end of each day on whether you took steps to achieving your goal of healthy happiness. Franklin himself focused on one virtue each month for part of his adult life, and at the end of each day, he evaluated whether or not he had acted in accordance with that virtue. One of his most challenging vices was gluttony, but by challenging himself each day to eat moderately, he cultivated temperance in his life that brought him happiness. Aristotle would have been proud to see an example of his virtue ethics at work.
Gretchen Rubin, the brain behind The Happiness Project, is a modern Aristotelian following in Benjamin Franklin’s footsteps. In her book, she explains how she selected a “resolution” or goal for each month of one year, planning 12 months in which she would better herself by aiming to meet these goals. Goals are personal and should be things you feel best set you up to achieve happiness. For example, Rubin’s goals included cultivating friendships, boosting energy, and being a better parent. She then identified daily habits that would allow her to achieve these goals and created growth charts that showed her progress throughout the month, much like Benjamin Franklin’s process of evaluating his intended virtue at the end of each day.
You too can improve your well-being, your eudaimonia, your happiness, your flourishing through this systematic goal-setting and evaluation. Outline a plan for just one month, focusing on a goal each week. For example, for a month, aim to be positive, challenge your mind, act more charitably, and cultivate a relationship each week. To work toward these goals, you might add daily habits to your routine like smiling at a stranger, reading a news article, donating an item, or contacting a friend by email. Soon, these practices will become habit, and the virtue is yours.
Overall, it may be said that consistency is the key to happiness. What we do every day defines the tone of our lives. Whether scolding your child or hugging your friend is your daily practice, you are what you repeatedly do. If we seek to achieve happiness every day, from now until the end of our lives, then we ought to aim at cultivating habits that allow us to live virtuous and happy lives.