Archive for the ‘Positive Psychology’ Category

Aristotle on the good life

January 5, 2009

I have just finished reading Sophie’s World, an excellent introduction to philosophy for teenagers and adults alike. One of the pearls of wisdom it contains is Aristotle’s criteria for a life of happiness and fulfillment:

According to Aristotle, man’s “form” comprises a soul, which has a plant-like part, an animal part, and a rational part. And now he asks: How should we live? What does it require to live a good life? His answer: Man can only achieve happiness by using all his abilities and capabilities.

Aristotle held that there are three forms of happiness. The first form of happiness is a life of pleasure and enjoyment. The second form of happiness is a life as a free and responsible citizen. The third form of happiness is a life as thinker and philosopher.

Aristotle then emphasized that all three criteria must be present at the same time for man to find happiness and fulfillment. He rejected all forms of imbalance. Had he lived today he might have said that a person who only develops his body lives a life that is just as unbalanced as someone who only uses his head. Both extremes are an expression of a warped way of life.

The same applies in human relationships, where Aristotle advocated the “Golden Mean.” We must be neither cowardly nor rash, but courageous (too little courage is cowardice, too much is rashness), neither miserly nor extravagant but liberal (not liberal enough is miserly, too liberal is extravagant). The same goes for eating. It is dangerous to eat too little, but also dangerous to eat too much. The ethics of both Plato and Aristotle contain echoes of Greek medicine: only by exercising balance and temperance will I achieve a happy or “harmonious” life.


The undesirability of cultivating extremes is also expressed in Aristotle’s view of society. He says that man is by nature a “political animal.” Without a society around us, we are not real people, he claimed. He pointed out that the family and the village satisfy our primary needs of food, warmth, marriage, and child rearing. But the highest form of human fellowship is only to be found in the state.

Aristotle’s philosophy is loudly echoed in the movement of Positive Psychology. In his talk, What positive psychology can help you become, Martin Seligman speaks of three “happy” lives:

The Pleasant life

  • Having as many pleasures as you can
  • Learning the skills to amplify them

The Good Life (Engagement) – good refers to Arete, which means excellence or virtue

  • Flow
  • Exercising your strengths in work, love and play to achieve Eudaimonia (flourishing).

The Meaningful life

  • Using your strengths in the service of something (e.g. positive institutions) larger than you

While I appreciate what Positive Psychology (PP) sets out to achieve and think that it is tremendously helpful, I am cynical about the one-sided, happy-happy-joy-joy rhetoric that the movement employs. Things just aren’t that simple. There are darker sides to living that everyone faces, even the most virtuous. If the good life merely involved cultivating and exercising strengths in three distinct areas we would have all followed Aristotle’s advice centuries ago and have no need of PP.