What is happiness? It’s hard to say. According to Aristotle, it’s the primary goal of human life, but it certainly looks different for each and every person. I was interested in how philosophers defined this elusive concept, so I researched philosophical takes on it. As philosophers tend to argue with one another, I didn’t expect to find many similarities in their ideas. However, while reading through quotes, I noticed that the following four ideals came up over and over. As I thought about it further, I noticed that these are still often cited today as paths to happiness by all kinds of different people. I separated these quotes into four categories to illustrate the overarching themes I noticed in my research. Here are the quotes of ten great thinkers, ancient and modern, on their ideas of happiness.
I’ve written about the joy of living simply on this site before, and these great philosophers seem to agree with me! We tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. In our culture especially, we also tend to be dissatisfied with what we have. Instead of appreciating the good things in life, we often focus on what’s lacking, and thus squander our capability to feel grateful.
“The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates (To learn more about Socrates’ view of happiness, click here.)
“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” – John Stuart Mill
“The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” –Seneca
Plato and Aristotle, two great Greek philosophers who happened to be teacher and student, agreed that self-reliance is key to happiness. You know yourself better than anyone, and so you’re the only one who truly knows what you need to be happy. Relying on others also makes it easy to avoid taking responsibility for your actions, which is never healthy. Take your life into your own hands, and you’ll see a massive difference.
“The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily.” – Plato (Plato had many more ideas about happiness–click here to learn about them.)
“Happiness depends upon ourselves.” – Aristotle (Here‘s more information on Aristotle and happiness.)
Letting Go & Embracing Life
The best things tend to come along when you least expect them—that’s the old cliché. But clichés exist for a reason. Trying to control every aspect of your life in anticipation of faraway happiness only closes you off to what’s right in front of you.
“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” – Henry David Thoreau
“Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” — Sören Kierkegaard
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus
There’s nothing quite like the warm feeling of helping someone in need. Be kind to others, and offer to help your friends and family. Offer to listen to their problems or be a shoulder to cry on. They will reciprocate, and your social circle will become more supportive and uplifting. Bring happiness to others, and it will come to you.
“If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years.” – Bertrand Russell
“I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives.” – Dalai Lama