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3 Ideas from Aristotle on How to Build a Good Life

Happiness is more than just favorable circumstances.

Key points

  • Counter-intuitive advice on leading a good life: Keep in mind your deathbed.
  • Think of happiness as a verb.
  • Find your purpose.
  • Become the best version of yourself.
Peter Schmidt/pixabay
Source: Peter Schmidt/pixabay

Do you believe happiness is the ultimate goal of human life?

If yes, then you might be a budding Aristotelian, says Edith Hall, a classics professor at Durham University and a scholar of the ancient Greek philosophers.

More than two thousand years since Aristotle’s teachings, science has come a long way in its exploration of happiness. Advice on leading a good life is everywhere, from tending to our physical health and our relationships, to finding meaning and flow.

Here’s a counterintuitive suggestion from Hall to add to the list, one that echoes a well-known dictum from the ancient times (memento mori), and one that, at first glance, has little to do with happiness: Keep in mind your deathbed.

“The certainty of finitude and impermanence can be a reminder and an instruction: a reminder to live while you still can, and an instruction on how to live while you still can,” says Hall.

People report all kinds of regrets on their deathbeds. Often, they involve something they did—wrongdoings, decisions, attitudes. However, it’s also possible to regret what one neglected to do, whether it’s standing up for a noble cause or treating others well. Aristotle was among the first philosophers to explore the concept of omission, enriching our understanding of personal agency in the time we’ve been given.

Source: grumpybeere/pixabay

Among the best uses of our finite time, according to Aristotle, is to spend it on developing virtues. This way, we could obtain a happiness that is not conditional upon some extrinsic reward, but rather, happiness that results from the “intrinsic serenity” of knowing that we tried our best and moved through life with good intentions. Plus, Hall adds, people will usually like us more for being good.

“Aristotle insisted that becoming happy as an individual is your unique and momentous responsibility,” says Hall. “It's also a great gift that’s within most people’s power, regardless of their circumstances, to decide to become happier.”

Here’s Edith Hall with 3 Aristotelian principles on how to build a good life.

  1. Think of happiness as a verb.

The word “happiness” often conjures up particular images – a loving embrace, a scrumptious slice of cake, a hard-earned accomplishment. As wonderful as these mental pictures are, in reality, they have a startlingly brief lifespan. No thing, person, or experience has the capacity to settle us into a permanent state of bliss (nor would we want to resign our moments to any unrelenting states).

Happiness is more than just favorable circumstances. To Aristotle, happiness was a “sense of fulfillment and satisfaction about your conduct, your interactions and the way your life is going,” all of which imply action (Hall, 2019). Eudaimonia (“happiness of the soul”), according to Aristotle, is a verb. It’s about the way we engage with life’s diverse moments, day-after-day. It’s about doing things that epitomize virtue ethics (i.e., doing the right thing). A happy state of mind is a result of training yourself to be a good person by developing virtues such as discipline, conscientiousness, benevolence and learning to control your vices. After all, “virtues directed towards other people make a constitutive contribution to your own happiness” (Hall, 2019).

In other words, consider happiness as a virtuous activity that aligns with the best possible version of yourself. Make a habit out of trying to do the right thing. Without an ethical code, you run the risk of living life by continuously reacting to it, rather than skillfully and reflectively responding to it.

  1. Find your purpose

Most of our days are built around our roles, responsibilities and routines. However, a good life often needs a purpose.

To help find your purpose, Aristotle suggests asking yourself two questions:

  1. What legacy would you like to leave?
  2. By what route is it feasible and pleasurable for you to do that?

Pleasure is an important index of purpose, because people tend to enjoy doing what they’re very good at. Find out what you enjoy doing, and create a long-term plan with smaller goals around your purpose.

With regards to feasibility, it helps to have a Plan B I Don’t Hate. For example, if you enjoy painting and you wish to be a successful painter, you may end up teaching painting in a high school. If you don’t go after what you really want, you risk experiencing the common deathbed regret of not daring to pursue your dreams.

  1. Become the best version of yourself.

When Aristotle invented the idea of the best version of yourself, he called it “maximizing your potential.” The Greek word for this is dunamis, which has the same root that Alfred Nobel used for the word dynamite. For Aristotle, dunamis symbolized potential. Everything organic has potential. An acorn can turn to a giant oak tree. A human embryo can turn to a magnificent philosopher, an outstanding cook, an exemplary parent.

Bring to mind a picture of your best possible self. According to Aristotle’s instructions, that doesn't mean picturing yourself lounging on a tropical beach, surrounded by riches. Instead, consider what this version of you looks like in a moral sense. Perhaps it’s a picture of you in action, laughing with others, helping your community, being loved and respected. What are the virtues and character strengths that the best possible version of you possesses? How does this version of you embody these character strengths in your everyday life?

Consider this thought experiment: You find yourself in a deserted island with thirty other survivors. Everyone pulls together their resources in order to add to the community. Some might offer their medical knowledge. Others might have technical expertise. Each of us has unique strengths and insights that can facilitate individual and collective well-being. These strengths come in many colors: compassion, humor, storytelling skills. What would be your valuable contribution? Exploring those virtues and competencies can give you clues about your best possible self.

Many thanks to Edith Hall for her time and insights. Dr. Hall is a Professor of Classics at University of Durham, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the author of numerous books, including Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life (2020).


Hall, E. (2020). Aristotle's way: How ancient wisdom can change your life. Penguin.

Waldinger, R. (2015). What makes a good life. Lessons from the longest study on happiness.

Oishi, S., Choi, H., Koo, M., Galinha, I., Ishii, K., Komiya, A., ... & Besser, L. L. (2020). Happiness, meaning, and psychological richness. Affective Science, 1, 107-115.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of happiness. Random House.

Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning and wellbeing: biological and psychological benefits. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 347071.

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