More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle begins the Nicomachean Ethics, one of his most widely read and influential works, by asking what the final good for human beings is. He identifies this final good with happiness, and claims that human good (that is, happiness) is activity of the soul in accordance with the best and most perfect virtue. He believes that happiness depends on the cultivation of virtue, though his virtues are somewhat more individualistic than the essentially social virtues of the Confucians. Hence, Aristotle enshrines the ultimate goal of human life, which is simply happiness: finding a purpose in order to realise your potential, and working on your attitude to attain excellence so that we can find happiness.
Our current obsession with finding happiness today may not be too different from Aristotle’s quest for meaning. Today, however, the emphasis on meaning and virtue seems to be at odds with our culture. Modern attitudes reveal that we no longer appreciate the cultivation of virtues. Instead, we are now more interested in the frenetic pursuit of a self-gratifying version of happiness than in the disciplined search for meaning, even if contemporary research constantly reminds that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction. Happiness without meaning characterises a relatively shallow and self- absorbed life. This life typically allows things to go well as our needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are also conveniently avoided. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness today is unsurprisingly leaving people less happy, and it is this very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.
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