Over the last year or two, one of the sub-themes on The Simple Dollar has been to look at different schools of philosophy and see what they can tell us about living a successful modern life, financially, personally, and otherwise. We’ve already discussed epicureanism and stoicism, and today I want to move onto the teachings of Aristotle and his concept of “eudaemonia.”
Before we get started, I wanted to clearly reiterate why I’m examining philosophies and how they’re relevant in a very real and tangible way to modern life and financial and personal decisions we all make. As I stated in an earlier article:
Wikipedia provides a great basic definition: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Philosophy can be abstract, such as trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t or what it means to truly “know” something, or it can be more practical, asking questions like what the best way to live is.
For me, philosophy is really useful as a tool for figuring out the best way to live, and it is in that context that I’m writing about it here.
So, let’s dig into what Aristotle has to say.
I wanted to start out by linking to this great article by Edith Hall on what Aristotle can teach us about happiness. This is a key quote:
[T]he goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. Humans are animals, and therefore pleasure in responsible fulfillment of physical needs (eating, sex) is a guide to living well. But since humans are advanced animals, naturally inclining to live together in settled communities, we are ‘political animals’. Humans must take responsibility for their own happiness since ‘god’ is a remote entity, the ‘unmoved mover’ who might maintain the universe’s motion but has neither any interest in human welfare, nor any providential function in rewarding virtue or punishing immorality. Yet purposively imagining a better, happier life is feasible since humans have inborn abilities that allow them to promote individual and collective flourishing. These include the inclinations to ask questions about the world, to deliberate about action, and to activate conscious recollection.
What can we take away here? What are the key tenets of Aristotle’s philosophy in terms of how we can apply it to living?
Humans can maximize happiness by living virtuously. Aristotle provided a list of virtues that he felt were important – courage, temperance, generosity, joyfulness, pride, honor, levelheadedness, friendliness, honesty, wit, loyalty, and justice. One might identify others according to one’s own values, but this is a pretty good list to start with. Another good list of virtues is Benjamin Franklin’s list; he also has a really good practice for reminding yourself to live a more virtuous life, one that is central to my goals for the coming year.
Humans can also maximize happiness by fulfilling their own potential as a human. What does that mean? It simply means that you’re actually using your mind and body and energy toward something productive and worthwhile rather than wasting it. For me, this is all about achieving a “flow state,” where you’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you lose track of time and space. (Remember, this requires doing something – losing track of time while just being idle or doing something incredibly passive like watching a sitcom isn’t “flow.”) The most effective way I’ve found to do this is to set aside blocks of time to tackle hard things and then eliminate as many distractions as I can within that time so that I have a chance to get into that kind of zone. This, to me, is one of the happiest states I can achieve.
Another route to maximizing happiness is engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. The simple act of doing something with other people helps to maximize happiness. This can often overlap with being in a “flow state.” In fact, it’s when I can reach that kind of focused state when engaged with other people in a shared activity that I feel really happy as a human being. I often reach that state when I play a tabletop game with people or have a real meaningful conversation with someone.
Pleasure in responsible fulfillment of physical needs is a guide to living well. This includes things like eating a truly fulfilling and nutritious meal, physical intimacy, hygiene (think about how a long shower can feel), getting good exercise, and getting good sleep. If you make sure you’re taking time to take care of yourself, it’s a lot easier for that experience alone to bring you pleasure, and it’s certainly a lot easier to find pleasure in other aspects of life if you’re taking care of yourself.
We must take responsibility for our own happiness. Happiness does not come from an external source. Nothing outside of you can bring you happiness or lasting joy. You have to find it within yourself – in fact, relying on external sources of happiness almost guarantees you won’t find lasting happiness within, because eventually that external source will fail you.
Our natural ability to think gives us the ability to conceive of and work toward a better life. If we’re not happy with our lives right now, we have the capacity to visualize a better life and come up with a plan to get there and execute that plan (provided we have the willpower to follow through). We always have the capacity to make our situation better and we usually have the capacity to figure out how, provided we’re willing to put in that work. That’s actually a tremendous advantage over just going through life without really understanding what we can do to make it better.
These ideas together actually provide a very strong roadmap for building a life that is fertile soil for happiness with limited means. Here are five tactics suggested by Aristotle’s philosophy for doing just that.
Tactic #1 – Seek Experiences and Ideas, Not Stuff
Almost every single suggestion that Aristotle offers for finding happiness in life comes from actually doing things – preferably challenging things. It does not come from accumulating possessions. It does not come from buying bigger and better items. It comes from engaging the mind and body in meaningful activities that actually push your mind and body.
Take an extremely critical eye towards purchasing possessions. Possessions are really only useful if they maintain your mind and body (which we’ll get back to in a minute) or are truly essential for engaging in some meaningful activity. If you’re just accumulating stuff without a strong intent to use it, then it’s probably a net negative to invest your money in buying that item and filling up your home with it. The idea of having a new possession should be seen as a net negative on its own and there needs to be quite a bit of “positive” to counterbalance that. Obviously, this tactic has some very positive personal finance consequences, because you’re buying a lot less stuff if you take it seriously.
While you’re at it, pare down your possessions to ones you use frequently. Simply having a lot of stuff means that you’re devoting space to storing it and time and energy to organizing it and cleaning it and maintaining it. Those kinds of activities take away from actually doing meaningful things with your time, and the possessions themselves represent a drain on your finances. Pare down. You’ll be happy you did.
Tactic #2 – Keep Your Mind and Body Healthy
If you take that first tactic as a foundation, that doing things that engage your mind and body deeply is a key to a happy life, then taking care of your mind and body makes a lot of sense. After all, without a sound mind and a sound body, it’s hard to engage in activities that really engage your mind and body.
Get some exercise. This doesn’t mean you should become a gym rat (if you’re not already one). Rather, it means that you should move around more and do things that involve moving and exerting your body. Go for a daily walk. Do a simple calisthenics routine in your living room. Walk up a few flights of stairs a few times a day. Just do something that seems within the realm of what you can do that pushes you a little so you start breathing a little heavy and your heart rate goes up and maybe you sweat a little. Do something along those lines each day for a little while.
Eat healthy, nutritious foods that you like. Think of some foods that are genuinely healthy that you enjoy and make those things a bigger part of your diet. At the same time, think of stuff you consume that you know is unhealthy and just eat a little less of it. Radical dietary change generally doesn’t lead to happiness, but some tweaks can leave you feeling better without being deprived, and the better you feel, the more likely you are to pull off other things here.
When you’re tired, go to bed, and aim each night to get enough sleep that you wake up feeling genuinely rested. There is virtually no benefit in forcing yourself to “stay up” when you’re tired. Simply go to bed when you feel tired and sleep until you feel rested if at all possible.
Learn new things and participate in activities that engage your mind. You should attempt to read things, watch things, and participate in activities that force you to think in new ways, absorb new knowledge, and work on new skills. I personally do this by reading hard books and playing mentally challenging games and solving hard puzzles. The goal is to exercise your mind via an activity that you enjoy.
Tactic #3 – Live a Virtuous Life
A core element of Aristotle’s teaching when it comes to living the good life is to live a virtuous life, one in which you make life decisions and act in accordance with high moral standards.
As I mentioned earlier, the exact virtues a person might follow may have changed somewhat over time and culture, but you’re likely never wrong to follow the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Consider always how you would like to be treated and how you would like others to act around you and toward you, and then adopt that as your own standard of behavior.
Aristotle’s perspective is that the closer you come to virtuous living, the more naturally joy will appear in your life. It’s easier to be happy when you know you’re consistently doing good things and treating others well.
As I noted earlier in this article, I think that Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues and the strategy he used to reinforce them is a wonderful practice to incorporate in modern life if you want to be more virtuous.
To summarize, Franklin identifies thirteen virtues:
1. Temperance – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry – Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity – Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
While not perfect, Franklin’s list is pretty applicable to modern life as is.
Franklin’s practice is simply one of daily reflection. He made a set of thirteen “virtue cards” that listed one virtue on each card. Each week, he’d focus on one of the virtues, so he’d carry that card around with him and look at it throughout the day. At the end of each day, he’d effectively grade himself on each virtue, a practice very much like the one described by Marshall Goldsmith in his excellent book Triggers.
If you want to follow that same pattern, I suggest thinking about what virtues you think make up a virtuous life today. Try to make a list of them, and then focus on them on a rotating basis. A list of thirteen, like Franklin had, is a great idea, because you can go through a full cycle every three months (one a week for thirteen weeks) and four full cycles a year. Just focus on one virtue a day, remind yourself of it a few times throughout the day, and then consider how well you did on all of your virtues at the end of the day. You’ll naturally start embedding a more virtuous life in your head, and according to Aristotle’s philosophy (and my own experiences), you’ll end up feeling happier about your life.
Tactic #4 – Engage in Meaningful Social Activities
It’s not enough to just be social – the secret sauce, according to Aristotle, is to engage with others in some form of purposeful and meaningful collaborative activity. It might be something as simple as playing a board game or making some meals in advance, or it might be something like working together on an academic or professional project or doing charitable work.
Is the activity something that everyone involved is genuinely engaged in? Is the activity something that results in a distinctive outcome that’s beneficial for at least someone? If you can firmly answer yes to both, it’s likely going to be a source of happiness in your life.
Charitable projects are an obvious starting point, but virtually any purposeful social activity – meaning you’re spending time together doing something besides mere idling and idle talk – really qualifies.
There’s obviously an infinite number of low-cost activities that fit the bill here, but for me, I’ve found success finding happiness in things like playing board games, working for charity, participating in a book club, and participating in martial arts classes. All of those things provide a deep sense of fulfillment and camaraderie, and I find that essential to living the proverbial “good life.”
Tactic #5 – Seek Out Things That Challenge You (in a Good Way)
The final strategy that Aristotle encourages for finding the good life is to take on challenges rather than avoiding them.
So often in our busy lives, we choose the path of least resistance. We choose the easiest route to some outcome we desire and call that good enough.
The thing is, doing the easy thing rarely brings us a sense of meaning or purpose or fulfillment. Rather, the easy thing usually ends up feeling pretty empty.
A much better strategy is to choose the challenging path as often as possible. Do the challenging workout. Read the challenging book. Take on the challenging project at work.
You shouldn’t do this to the point of overwhelm, as that often brings stress with it. Our modern sense of feeling overwhelmed, however, often comes from trying to jam too many simpler activities into our life. We’re much better off if we commit to fewer things, but those fewer things are more personally challenging. You’re going to feel happier achieving one challenging thing in a day than ten simple things.
In other words, cut out as much of the non-essential and non-challenging things from your life as you can, and give yourself room to take on challenges. The experience and the successes will bring much more joy and fulfillment than just knocking out a bunch of simple activities.
Aristotle’s concept of the good life centers around things that can easily be found in modern life if we make room for them. Live a virtuous life. Spend quality meaningful and purposeful time with others. Take on challenges. Take care of your body. His formula isn’t hard to follow, it’s not financially straining, and it’s compatible with other ideas on how to live the good life.
If you’d like to learn more about these ideas, I highly recommend Answers for Aristotle by Massimo Pigliucci, which ties together scientific findings and other schools of philosophy into Aristotle’s teachings to make a profound case for these ideas to make up the backbone of a good life.
For me, the journey of seeking the good life without simply throwing money at the problem has made a profound difference in my quality of life. Being able to pull out elements from different philosophical schools and applying them has been quite powerful, and Aristotle’s ideas are really easy to pull out and mix with the teachings of other philosophies on how to live the good life, like epicureanism and stoicism.
Money doesn’t buy happiness. You have to find it elsewhere. However, healthy finances can provide a firm foundation upon which other principles that bring happiness can find fertile ground.