What is the most important thing to pursue? Is it happiness? Is it success? The great philosopher Aristotle said happiness is the thing people most want. We don’t seem to chase happiness for some secondary purpose. Everything we pursue and every goal we have we hope will make us happy. His argument is solid and if you’ve ever read his work Nicomachean Ethics, then you know he makes a great argument for the idea that all human beings seek happiness as the ultimate good. The problem is happiness has a much broader meaning for Aristotle than it does for us. The Greek word he uses is difficult to translate into English. The word he uses is eudaimonia which means “To flourish” more than to experience the emotional state of happiness. If we’re flourishing happiness will be an effect of that experience, but it’s not the objective of what human beings desire. We desire to flourish, not just experience a mood labeled as happiness.
If we want to flourish, we need to have meaning and purpose in our lives. Meaning and purpose pulls us toward a sense of flourishing. If I find meaning and purpose in my life and direct my actions, goals, and efforts toward fulfilling that meaning and purpose, then I flourish. I experience happiness at times but also in the struggles and difficulties of life, I overcome and grow. To suffer for something bigger than yourself stimulates a deeper and more fulfilling life. To accomplish goals directed toward something more than myself is to feel that I am moving toward something profound and transcendent. This is what it means to flourish in the broader sense that Aristotle describes in his philosophical work.
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist captured by the Nazis during WWII, put in some of the darkest and worst conditions a person could ever endure, and who lost his whole family in the death camps believed one must make meaning of life to survive it. A person will survive almost anything if he or she can maintain a sense of purpose and meaning. He saw that prisoners who no longer could find purpose succumbed to their conditions in the concentration camps and died. In his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he writes:
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.“
So, my friends, if you want to flourish, be happy, and endure difficult situations when the arise, be sure your life is guided toward something bigger than yourself. More and more it seems we’re simply floundering in a life numbed by entertainment from glowing screens on our walls, desks, and in our hands. Ask yourself what the greater and more profound mission is for your life and pursue it with all you have. It will be the best thing you can do for yourself and those in your life.