Modern-day research supports much of what ancient philosophers already knew about happiness. Here’s what you should know about the link between good character and happiness.
When we talk about happiness in modern life, we are often referring to the feeling we get after the first lick of a delicious ice cream cone or when spending an afternoon with good friends. This way of thinking about happiness as pleasure suggests that it is a subjective, emotional state, susceptible to the moment-to-moment experience we are having.
Although feeling good is a part of happiness, many ancient schools of thought defined happiness more broadly. In particular, Aristotle believed that the ultimate aim of human life was a concept ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness” but more likely means “human flourishing” or “a good life”. Rather than an emotion or mood that changes, eudaimonia is better assessed by asking ourselves, “What do I want to be remembered for when my life is over?” Aristotle’s prescription for living a good life was to exercise virtue. To be kind, humble, wise, and honest consistently in our actions. Being a good person, in other words, is the recipe for a happy life.
Modern psychology has embraced Aristotle’s notion with the development of the classification of Character Strengths and Virtues. Over a decade ago, psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman assessed the values of cultures across human history and identified the 24 most universal virtues or character strengths. These strengths of character represent what most people would label as good character, including hope, gratitude, fairness, and love.
A significant body of research now supports that developing and using strengths of character leads to increased happiness.
How do we put the ancient wisdom of eudaimonia to work for us? Here are 4 of the virtues Aristotle encouraged his students to develop in themselves.
Apparently road rage was common in Ancient Greece as well. The desire for instant gratification – particularly in our fast-paced, tech-driven world – can easily turn an annoyance into anger. Exerting patience means managing our temper in accordance with the situation. If you catch yourself tapping your foot and checking your watch waiting in line at the bank, first assess whether or not your anger is helping the situation. If not, it might be better to let it go. And if your impatience is directly squarely at another person, work to develop empathy and put yourself in their shoes. If someone does cut you off in traffic, consider what might be going on for them and what their intentions are.
According to Aristotle, too much patience, however, can lead you to be a pushover. Having courage, particularly in the face of injustice, is virtuous. It’s important to understand that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather an appropriate balance of fear and confidence. Do you tend to be overly confident or overly fearful? If you lean too often towards fear, find opportunities to act despite your fear by having a hard conversation or challenging yourself to say yes when invited to do something that intimidates you. If you find you’re more the overconfident type, reflect on what fears you are feeling (maybe admitting that the new project you’re taking on means a lot to you and you can’t bear to see it fail) and acknowledge them as a source of strength as you move forward.
Remember that second piece of pie you were reaching for last night? Did you really need that? Temperance is about moderation when it comes to self-indulgence. By all means, we should have a slice of pie and savor it. But too much of any good thing will corrode happiness, particularly as guilt and self-loathing sets it. Exercise appropriate self-restraint in two ways. One, when you choose to take pleasure and enjoyment in something, allow yourself to be fully present and enjoy it. Two, set appropriate limits for yourself and stick to them. Have a plan ahead of time and know that you’ll boost your happiness more by sticking to your limit than by breaking it and indulging.
In Aristotle’s worldview, friendship was one of the highest virtues. He acknowledged that friendships often exist for purely practical reasons, like the friendliness you express to a coworker. But that true friendship is about a connection between two people who admire each other and encourage each other to reach their full potential. Such friendships are rare. These are not the hundreds of connections you have on Facebook or LinkedIn. These are the people you call in the middle of the night when you need someone to be there for you. Investing in and nurturing these relationships is foundational to supporting our own happiness. Identify who these people are in your life and let them know how much you appreciate them. Those conversations are a happiness win-win.
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