The Doughnut Dilemma and How Aristotle Solved It

What mom taught you at the playground still applies.

Posted Oct 25, 2018

Remember when Mom urged you to “be good”?  You would hear her plea with you as you were dropped off at Grandma's house or when taken out in public. We are urged to be good throughout our lives- on the playground, in school and sometimes when we get carried away at a party.  

To ‘be’ is to exist, to occupy a place or position.  It is.  Aristotle would urge us to do. It is in the activity, the learning and the doing that we acquire certain virtues and for Aristotle, this is the path to achieving happiness.

Aristotle believed virtue was an excellence and is a habit.  Habituation is a cognitive shaping of desires through three things:  perception, belief, and intention. “States arise out of like activities.” Aristotle. This means certain actions lead to the establishment of certain states of character.

Identify what it is you are striving for and think about the actions one would do if they already had that virtue. Then do them consistently. Practice them until they become second nature. Seek a role model or coach.

I used to wake and enjoy my coffee with one or two donuts.  At the urging of a friend, I made the decision to become healthier. The donuts needed to be replaced. 

 Kerry Tobin
Source: Kerry Tobin

When I decided to practice the virtue of proper nutrition it was challenging.  I had to change my perception and belief around eating healthier and be clear on my intention to improve my well-being and happiness. It was not easy but in time I acquired a taste for healthier foods.   

It was a process.  I had to practice each day. It was tough choosing the better option but over time that choice brought a great sense of satisfaction.  When the day came that I chose the healthier option because it brought me happiness, Aristotle would have said I acquired the virtue of proper nutrition.    

Like the Nike ad states, “Just Do It!”  Do it and you will gradually master the sport you want to play or the athletic skill you want to improve.  

For Aristotle desirable qualities are achieved by carrying out the appropriate actions.  Our highest function is excellent activity.  The essence of that excellence is growth and training. 

“But the virtues we acquire by first exercising them...it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing courageous acts that we become courageous...it is by acting in the face of danger and by habituating ourselves to fear or courage that we become either cowardly or courageous.” Aristotle

The positive psychology movement identified six core virtues that are universal and defy culture, time and place.  They are:

Wisdom - learning

Courage - persistence and authenticity

Humanity - love  

Justice - fairness, teamwork and leadership,

Temperance - self-control, humility,

Transcendence - meaning, hope and humor

These ideals create our personal and societal foundations.  We must cultivate these virtues for only then do we reach our true potential and our highest goal: being happy.  So when we are faced with the donut dilemma we know that we can choose wisely.  All it takes is practice.  You can get to the Carnegie Hall of happiness no other way. It turns out Mom was right—there is something important about this ‘being good’.