The Greek word that usually gets translated as “happiness” is eudaimonia, and like most translations from ancient languages, this can be misleading. The main trouble is that happiness (especially in modern America) is often conceived of as a subjective state of mind, as when one says one is happy when one is enjoying a cool beer on a hot day, or is out “having fun” with one’s friends.
For Aristotle, however, happiness is was final end or goal that encompassed the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations. It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being. For this reason, one cannot really make any pronouncements about whether one has lived a happy life until it is over, just as we would not say of a football game that it was a “great game” at halftime. For the same reason we cannot say that children are happy, any more than we can say that an acorn is a tree, for the potential for a flourishing human life has not yet been realized. As Aristotle says, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18)
Pursuing this idea, let us imagine postponing any conclusions about our happiness until the end of life (or near to it anyway – one would have to be sentient). Then can I propose some searching questions? Ask yourself, for instance:
– Have I lived a full life, using all the abilities and talents given me to good effect?
– Have I lived an honest life, privately and in my job?
– Have I treated other people with consideration and kindness?
– Have I been generous in spirit and in giving?
– Have I done enough to help the sick, the poor and those not blessed as I have been?
– Has there been enough beauty and tranquility in my life?
– Have I given love and support to those closest to me?
– Have I come to terms with any regrets I have?
It is a rare human being who can honestly claim a perfect, happy life, but a quiet conscience gives a clue.