The Good Life and Happiness

I found it interesting that some of the most popular courses on college campuses these days are those about finding the good life or happiness. They have become the most sought-after lectures with class sizes exceeding 1,000 or more. This suggests a population of young adults and a culture that is in search of that elusive status of joy, abundance, and happiness.

I thought it timely to consider again what the status of abundance and happiness is and where it can be found. Our tutors in the effort will be Aristotle and Viktor Frankl to help us fuse the wisdom of the past with the perspective of modernity and of our future. Aristotle is the philosophical, while Frankl is the laboratory and practice of the ideals.

Aristotle suggested that happiness is the good at which all men aim. If we are to pursue it, as Thomas Jefferson suggested in the Declaration of Independence, it is an activity of discovery and passion. Good governments like people are most likely to succeed when they begin from a position of safety and security to conceive, ponder and broach happiness. How do we know when we have discovered the prize of joy in the pursuit?

“Most people, I should think, agree about what it is called, since both the masses and sophisticated people call it happiness, understanding being happy as equivalent to living well and acting well. They disagree about substantive conceptions of happiness, the masses giving and account which differs from that of the philosophers. For the masses think it is something straightforward and obvious, like pleasure, wealth, or honor, some thinking it to be one thing, others another.” (Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Chapter 4. Roger Crisp. St Anne’s College, Oxford.) Aristotle proceeds to lay out a way of becoming an individual of character through building moral habits that, when put into action, constitutes human excellence and allows us to flourish.

As we began this new year, we invited ourselves to find greater meaning in life by making and keeping commitments to ourselves and others. As Viktor Frankl points out in Man’s Search for Meaning, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.” (Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. 76. Boston, Beacon Press, 2006.) What is your desire for the future for self and others?

Several questions from the prior blog “Prudence and Excellence” on January 10th were asked to help you liberate your potential and elevate your thoughts. It may also be healthy to see yourself in a constant state of finding purpose and meaning. “…[T]he meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

(1) by creating a work or doing a deed;

(2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and

(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” (p. 111)

There is a need to be constantly finding meaning by doing one of these things every day.

My admiration for Dr. Frankl goes deep because of his development of and perspective through Logotherapy. Logos is a Greek word literally translated as “word,” but in Greek philosophy logos refers to divine reason or meaning. Logotherapy, he said, “is different from psychoanalysis in that its methods are less retrospective and less introspective.” (p. 98) Meaning Logotherapy focuses on the future aspects of our life, more specifically the meaning that one intends to fulfill, instead of dwelling on the unpleasantries of past failures.

Here is perhaps the greatest motivation for what we choose to do this year: it is to know the “why”! From Frankl’s writings, I bolded the “whys” found in his descriptions of his experience finding meaning while in a concentration camp.

“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life any more. What sort of answer can one give to that?’” (p. 76)

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.” (p.77)

Create a work. Do a deed. Experience something new. Encounter someone new. Change your paradigm from What do I want? to What is expected of me?

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

Leave a Reply