Happiness vs Being Happy, Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

That fact that everyone has a right to pursue happiness suggests that happiness is attainable — in some degree — by everyone. But is this happiness the same for everyone? Is each of us pursuing the same goal when we try to live in such a way that our lives will be happy ones? To answer these questions it is necessary to understand the meaning of happiness — what constitutes a happy life.

And to do that, we must, first of all, clear our minds of certain misconceptions about the meaning of the word happy. Every day of our lives, we use the word “happy” in a sense which means “feeling good,” “having fun,” “having a good time”, or somehow experiencing a lively pleasure or joy. We say to our friends when they seem despondent or out of sorts, “I hope you will feel happier tomorrow.” We say “Happy New Year” or “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Anniversary.” Now all of these expressions refer to the pleasant feelings — the joys or satisfactions which we may have at one moment and not at another. In this meaning of the word, it is quite possible for us to feel happy at one moment and not at the next. This is not Aristotle’s meaning of the word. Nor, when you think about it for a moment, can it be the meaning of the word in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and other signers of the Declaration had read Aristotle and Plato — this was part of their education.

Both Aristotle and the Declaration use the word “happiness” in a sense which refers to the quality of a whole human life — what makes it good as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are not having fun or a good time every minute of it.

A human life may involve many pleasures, joys, and successes. On the other hand, it may also involve many pains, griefs and troubles and still be a good life — a happy life. Happiness, in other words, is not made by the pleasures we have; nor, for that matter, is happiness marred by the pains we suffer.


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