I have been reading Aristotle for a few days now, and continuously throughout those few days I have come back to the question, "Am I happy?" In a large scope, the answer is yes, but the question is so involved that I cannot help thinking about it, over and over, through the many different facets of my own existence. As base and immature as it may be, the happiness question of Book I tugs at me much more than morality, virtue, or choice (and all of them seem to come back to happiness).
I wonder what exactly it means to be “happy.” It seems similar to one of Plato’s “ideas” or forms, although I cannot be sure that happiness has a direct relationship to the chair. The second stage of happiness is not a carpenter’s interpretation of it, but rather a person’s own feelings, which are not tangible. They are noticeable, but not in the concrete way that wood can be seen and touched. In the same way that an artists depiction of the chair is the third level from the true form, so is a smile an expression of a person who seems to feel happy. However, a smile does not necessarily mean that one is happy; smiles can be forced, so the interpretation can be read falsely more easily than a picture or a drawing of a chair. It is much more difficult to pinpoint happiness. Aristotle says, “For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”
On the large scale, I can feel that I am happy, even though at this particular moment I am stressed over my paper and my never-ending Spectator responsibilities and all of the reading I have to do and whether or not I am going to be able to get in a cycling training session today. With all the buzz in my head, I feel strained—it shows on my face and in my posture—yet on a deeper level I know that I brought all of this responsibility upon myself because it makes me happy. Not a smile kind of happy, but a fullness within myself that I cannot even begin to explain, yet something without which I would feel empty.
In high school I read a book called How Full Is Your Bucket?, which theorized that each person’s soul (not the exact phrasing of the book, but in Platonic vocabulary that is the meaning) is like a bucket and a dipper. Each interaction that a person has either fills or empties their bucket corresponding to the gravity of the encounter, from the smallest smile as you walk past someone (drop in the bucket) to someone making hateful remarks about you (a whole cupful out of the bucket). Your happiness is essentially determined by the amount in your bucket. The book itself is rather corny—yet, the theory has stuck with me, and it helps me to understand how each small step in the day contributes to the overarching emotion that lays under the surface of my varied emotional responses.
I wonder, however, if my overall quest towards ultimate happiness is actually any good for me. At the beginning of Book I, Aristotle states, “…things are evident to us in two ways—some to us, others without qualification." For the first few paragraphs of this paper I have assumed that my happiness falls in the later of these two categories. That assumption assumes not only itself, but stands on the assumption that happiness is a “thing” which is “evident to us.” My claims, and the entire life system by which I base my decisions on a daily basis assumes that I make choices accordingly because I know what makes me happy. What if I am entirely wrong? It is certainly possible that I am completely in the dark about true fulfillment; in a sense, my bucket could be maxing out at half-full and I am only a discovery away from needing to change the entirety of my being and actions.
Thinking about this presents major problems for me. First and foremost, I devote so much time, energy, and ambition to the activities which I have made commitments to, that to think that they may be holding me back from fulfilling my potential happiness is daunting—paralyzing even. Thoughts like these seem to me a slippery slope into darkness, a spiral of unhappy thoughts that would simply drain my happiness due to the scope of the question, whether it is true or not. For this reason, I refuse to consider it. Not only does it not matter if I am not at the pinnacle of happiness (because to spend time pondering the magnitude of such a thing would essentially prevent me from ever getting there), but I fundamentally disagree with Aristotle’s claim that, “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”
I truly believe that happiness is more malleable than that. The definition of it, and the means by which it can be achieved by each individual, not only changes from person to person, but changes through individual growth within the person. The action that will make me happy this year may not come close to fulfilling my needs a decade from now. Currently, studying, soaking up every word that I can out of professors and peers is my prerogative. Learning from my surroundings is the source of my contentment. However, at some point I expect that this unquenchable thirst for knowledge will be at least partially shared by the desire to have a family, or rule the world, depending on which part of myself I let take over after graduation.
I will never have all of the knowledge in the world, or perfectly conform to the being I strive to be. I doubt that my quest for more will ever be finished, therefore meaning that I can never be truly happy until I am dead (if then) should this “happiness is the end of action” hypothesis be true. I refuse to believe that. Parts of me become even more content in the assurance that I never will have all of the knowledge in the world—if I come to terms with that now, I cease the need to strive for such a lofty goal. I can be happy with learning as the process, rather than the end. And that—knowing that I am in the process of learning—is enough to make me get out of bed every morning.