I waste so much of my life being unhappy that I feel like I am running out of time to be happy. Then I remember that the purpose of my life, of any of our lives, is not to be happy but rather to survive, to serve, to breed. Reality is not comforting, it keeps me up at night pondering why I bother with it.

How do I seek comfort in life knowing that my happiness is totally irrelevant?

I do not expect nor particularly want a direct answer, but I hope that it might inspire a "what would Aristotle do?" post on happiness



Dear Stephanie,

Thank you for your question about happiness, which should resonate well with the concerns of many other readers of this blog.  For openers, let me say that your happiness is not in the least "irrelevant."  However, much depends on how one defines "happiness."

In talking about "the purpose of your life," you seem to be in search of what philosophers sometimes call the summum bonum.  The Latin here refers to the "highest good" or "ultimate end" of human existence.  Some philosophers, notably the non-theistic existentialists, would deny that there is any such objective end or goal of human life.  These philosophers would say that there are only subjective ends, which each of us decide upon for ourselves.

Now, in your search for an objective end, you may find Aristotle's view helpful; for although he accepts the idea of such an end, his view also allows for considerable latitude in selecting diverse subjective ends that are compatible with actualizing this one, broad objective end.  So let me shed some Aristotelian light on your question.

For Aristotle, the highest good or ultimate human end is not merely to survive.  As the great Aristotelian scholar Thomas Aquinas noted, if a ship captain wanted simply to survive, he wouldn't venture out to sea. 

Nor is the chief end of human life to procreate.  For, while such an end might befit the love bug, human nature is not love bug nature. 

True, in order to survive and be procreative, we need to satisfy certain basic needs such as that of food, clothing, and shelter.  Of course, we also need enough money to secure these things in ample quality and amount. And it is past doubt that survival and procreation are material conditions of satisfying our "higher" aspirations (such as science, arts and letters) as individuals and as a species.  But, according to Aristotle, these purposes are just instrumental or extrinsic to our true happiness, not intrinsic or essential to it.

Instead, for Aristotle, our essential nature is a rational one. Human beings are by their very definition, rational animals. We are, by nature, uniquely qualified for rational existence.  As a species of animal, our keen and extraordinary ability to reason is the virtue or excellence of humankind.  Hence, doing it well is what makes us "happy" or self-actualized.   Accordingly, the broad-based end of living life rationally is what Aristotle regards as the summum bonum of humankind.  

Now, when you say that your purpose might be "to serve," you speak without clarity. For Aristotle, the greatest service you could perform is to be true to your true self, which is, as you have just seen, your rational side.  In other words, your happiness is not irrelevant.  Quite the contrary, it is what counts the most.  The question is then how to be happy.

Here, a common mistake is to define happiness in terms of pleasure and then to conclude that happiness is incompatible with doing anything that takes hard work and perseverance.  In fact, however, the greatest, long-term pleasures come with cultivating your rational capacities.  These include pursuing your education, getting involved in projects that allow you to engage your talents-ranging from the arts and applied sciences to the pure (theoretical) sciences, philosophy, and mathematics.  These capacities also include cultivating friendships with peers; improving close intimate ties such as by working on getting along with them without engaging in irrational and self-defeating behavior (name-calling, tit-for-tat, lying, manipulation, and sundry other forms of irrational habits of relating). 

Rational improvement also involves avoiding demanding perfection of yourself or others; not over-reacting or engaging in catastrophic thinking; increasing your tolerance for frustration by pushing yourself to stick with important tasks rather than caving to short-term relief of frustration.  It involves courage not to get carried away by unreasonable fears; authenticity and thinking for yourself rather than blind conformity; empathetic regard for others' circumstances instead of short-sided, self-defeating egocentricity; basing your judgments on evidence rather than on wishful, fatalistic, or other manner of irrational thinking.

Such a happy rationality involves feeling and being secure about reality.  This means being willing to accept disappointment and the short-comings inherent in life without needlessly disturbing yourself.  It involves not trying to control what is not in your power to control, and instead sticking to those things that truly are in your control.  This means not demanding the approval of others before allowing yourself to feel contented; it means not telling yourself that you are a failure if you aren't perfect; it means not falsely telling yourself that you have some sort of moral duty to constantly worry about bad things happening to you or others about whom you care. 

Such a life of reason is not devoid of emotion. Unfortunately, it is a popular misconception that reason and emotion are like oil and water, and that they are therefore incapable of co-existence.  On the contrary, within the broad parameters of rationality there is also a broad palette of emotions.  Indeed, many deeply meaningful emotions can be within these parameters, including empathy; disappointment; passionate dedication to personal and professional goals; love of friends and family; artistic and musical expression infused with and informed by emotion; and romantic sexual gratification, to name a few.

What's outside these parameters?  Fits of blind rage, depression, panic attacks, debilitating anxiety, phobias, and self-denigrating guilt, to name a few. 

But it is largely up to us whether we live within these broad, rational parameters or outside them.  Happiness, said Aristotle, involves skill building and practice.  It involves cultivating the right temperament, habit of mind, and disposition to act.  If we are willing to work hard cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally in shaping how we live, we can live happily. 

Keeping yourself up at night worry about "reality" when you should be getting some restful sleep is hardly the route to happiness.  You are therefore quite correct that you are "wasting" your time and making yourself unhappy. 

Instead, try a daily dosage of Aristotle's rational living antidote and see if you fare better! 

Happy trails!


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