The Buddha and Aristotle: The Purpose of Life is to Be Happy

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Western Civilization hasn’t changed much since it began. 2,500 years in, it still seems that the best way to know what to do or how to live is a pragmatic one, based on observation and judgment . This is the conclusion Aristotle came to, and where—after the triumph of American pragmatism—W.C. remains. This isn’t so bad . . .

To be happy –– as happy as possible

Aristotle’s approach to life encourages joie de vivre. It’s not the oppressively “grin-and-bear-it” solution of the proto-religious stoics (though they, for reasons I find baffling, are growing in contemporary popularity). Nor is Aristotle’s approach similar to the wild, depraved, free-wheeling way of (mythical) Assyrian king Sardanapalus, the unabashed nihilist who would have us “Eat, drink, play,” since “nothing else is worth the snap of a finger.” 

Aristotle’s approach—clumsily known in modern parlance as Virtue Ethics—makes us the arbiters of our own lives. 

And, in addition to fitting with our cherished do-it-yourself, anti-authoritarian desires for freedom and liberty, Aritstotle’s philosophy is also an empowering, active approach that stresses the importance of good friends, culture, and community.

How, then, to live?

To start, we need to determine the purpose of our life. And for both Buddha and Aristotle, happily, the purpose of human life is to be happy. As happy, in fact, as possible. 

Of what, according to these two philosophers, does happiness consist?

Unlike Plato—who stressed knowing and knowledge over action, emotions, and the body—both the Buddha and Aristotle were wise enough to acknowledge that human life occurs in a body—in time and space—so they are both practical-minded. 

For both of them, to understand how to live well is to know how to act well, which makes happiness a matter of study, judgment, and practice

How, then, do we start?

Without getting into the metaphysics and philosophy of it all, let’s cut to the chase: we’ve reminded ourselves here that (1) the purpose of life is to be happy, (2) that happiness depends on what we do, more than what we know. Therefore, (3) it benefits us to have a plan of action—an itinerary for our life—to guide our behavior. And because, in thinking about how to get somewhere, it’s helpful to know where we want to go, (4) we should be clear at the start of our journey about where we want to end up. 

There is a lot to say about this concept—of designing the end of our life at its beginning—and it’s an important notion that can be studied by reflecting on Aristotle’s conceptualization of causation—that our beginning (our initial motive, e.g. the acorn), contains its end (e.g. the oak). This idea, by the way, is also beautifully articulated, though with a slightly different slant, in Buddhism’s Avatamsaka Sutra. But, in keeping with our topic, let’s remain practical.

If it’s a good thing to live life with our end in mind, I’d like to recommend that you do so with an exercise.

The exercise is called Best Possible Self, which you can download by clicking here:

Take 15 minutes each day for two weeks to reflect on your life in the future: what is the best possible life you can imagine? What would happen in all of the areas of your life — Work, Health, Love, Play — in your best possible future? What would your days look like? Try to write about a day in your life in as much detail as possible, engaging all of your senses: where you are, what you are doing, what it smells like, sounds like, tastes like, etc.

But be careful—be sure to note your inner critic. The voice of self-loathing, the cynic who says, “you can’t do that, you don’t deserve that, you’re stupid to think that.” 

Nudge the so-called Evil One aside for this—there’ll be plenty of time to listen, if you really want to, to that one later. Give yourself permission for two weeks to spend 15 minutes each day dreaming and writing, uncensored.

In future missives we’ll discuss many of the issues related to this simple exercise, such as the importance of self-compassion and why it’s good to use—and nurture your mind with—creative, poetic, life-giving language. It’s important to cultivate such language as a resource upon which to build your life.

So, as you may have gathered, there is much more to say about all of these areas of spiritual, mental, contemplative life, (for example: what is Buddha’s happiness, really?), and we’ll continue to look at this and other topics in coming weeks.

Also, for those of you interested in working with this material more deeply, in a more formal, focused capacity, feel free to contact me about doing so . I also recommend the books Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall and the How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

Meanwhile, good luck with the exercise. And feel free to email a few words about what you discover in the process. I look forward to hearing your findings.

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