Does Positive Psychology Turn Aristotle on His Head?

If you took an introductory philosophy course in college, chances are at some point in the semester, your professor asked you and your classmates why you had come to class that day.

“Because I want to be ready for next week’s exam,” you might have responded.

“Why do you want to be ready for next week’s exam?” your professor may have prompted.

“Because I want to get a good grade in this class.”

“Why do you want to get a good grade in this class?”

“So I can graduate.”

“Why do you want to graduate?”

“So I can get a good job.”

“Why do you want to get a good job?”

At this point, you may have begun to feel a bit exasperated, but you were getting used to the fact that your philosophy professor liked to ask lots of questions. So after thinking for a bit, you said, “Because I want to earn a lot of money.”

You could have predicted your professor’s response. “Why do you want to earn a lot of money?”

“Because I want to be happy,” you responded.

“And why do you want to be happy?”

At this point, you just stared at your professor and mumbled, “Just because….I want to be happy.”

At this point, your professor stopped the questions and pointed out that you had just illustrated Aristotle’s claim in the Nicomachean Ethics, that happiness is “the end at which all actions aim.” Aristotle argues that everything we do, we do because we think it will make us happy. Consciously or not, we consider each of our actions to be a means for achieving happiness. Happiness, on the other hand, is something we want to achieve for its own sake, and not as a means to anything else.

Positive psychologists, it seems, disagree with Aristotle. Barbara Fredrickson, for example, argues that, while positive emotions are valuable in their own right, they are also valuable for what they bring. According to her broaden-and-build theory of human emotions, positive emotions are not simply markers of happiness; they are causes of other valuable things, as well. They broaden our attention and help us build our intellectual, psychological, and social resources. These expanded resources are likely to lead to a whole range of positive outcomes. So for Fredrickson, it seems that happiness can be a means to other valuable things.

Ed Diener argues that happiness is subjective well-being, which he defines in terms of high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life satisfaction. His empirical research indicates that subjective well-being leads to things like increased longevity, better health, and greater success in life. Like Fredrickson, it seems that Diener is arguing that happiness can be a means to other things.

For Mike Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is flow—a state in which our skills are matched with the challenges we face and our whole attention is completely absorbed by the task at hand. While Csikszentmihalyi sees flow as being valuable in its own right, he also sees it as an important tool for education. Children who are in flow at school are likely to learn more and more readily than those who are not.

So is positive psychology proving Aristotle wrong? Is it not the case, after all, that happiness is the end at which all actions aim? Is happiness itself a means to other valued outcomes?

Let’s go back to your college philosophy professor, to see what he or she would say. Your professor might point out that Aristotle’s notion of happiness encompasses more than positive affect, subjective well-being, and flow. It refers to a broader notion of human flourishing. Chances are, though, that your professor would probably respond…with a question. If it’s true that positive emotions, subjective well-being, and flow lead to increased intellectual, psychological, and social resources; to increased longevity, better health, and greater success in life; and to more effective education—your professor would ask, “Why do you want those things?” And eventually we would have to respond, “Because we think they will make us happy.”

So maybe positive psychologists are helping us to see that happiness tends to be self-perpetuating. Happiness leads to conditions that tend to bring more happiness. The more we flourish, the more we are likely to flourish. So maybe Aristotle is right, after all, that happiness is the end at which all actions aim. And if happiness is a means to something, it’s only to more happiness. So every time positive psychology turns Aristotle on his head, he manages to right himself again. Does this mean that cartwheels and somersaults are also a part of happiness?