Is Happiness a Ghost? Seeking Fulfillment Through Philosophy

Can happiness be considered a ghost? It depends on who you ask and what perspective they take.

Dec 24, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

happiness ghost fulfillment philosophy


This article explores the philosophy of happiness. The dictionary defines “happiness” as “the highest good available to man.” Still, there is disagreement over what this goodness consists of, much of it among philosophers, which this article explores. It will focus on Aristotle and his efforts to determine which qualities are needed for someone to feel fulfilled and truly happy. This article will also discuss Kantian and Nietzschean approaches to happiness.


First Mentions of the Philosophy of Happiness in Aristotle

henri matisse joy of life painting
The Joy of Life, Henri Matisse, 1905-06, via The Barnes Foundation


It’s no secret that humans have been searching for the answer to happiness since time immemorial. Philosophers throughout history, particularly Aristotle, made significant strides in trying to understand and explain this concept. His reflections on happiness remained unparalleled for centuries—nothing of such gravity emerged until much later.


Aristotle was one of the pioneers of the philosophy of happiness. He deduced the components of a happy life: the pleasure that accompanies human activity (and is inherent in nature), intelligence, and virtue. The philosopher studied the essence of happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics.


Aristotle believed that happiness is the activity of the soul in its fullness of virtue. However, understanding true happiness may differ depending on who you ask. Everyone has unique ideas and interpretations of happiness, and no two answers will ever be identical.

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The structure of the Nichomachean Ethics is circular. Beyond the limits of this circle, Aristotle takes out everything that, dialectically, does not further articulate a concept of happiness and clears the circle of debris.


The main thing is kept within the circle’s boundaries: happiness is obtained from the storehouse of the soul, mind, and virtues, as well as obstacles that hinder a happy path. The latter, alas, cannot be thrown out of the circle. Aristotle does not speak of the unity of opposites but advocates a courageous struggle in spite of them.


henri matisse dance painting
Dance (I), Henri Matisse, 1909, via The Museum of Modern Art


People agree that happiness is the highest good, but philosophers tend to disagree with ordinary people about what happiness consists of. To enjoy life, to have wealth and honor—is this happiness? Is someone who was sick and now is well again happy? Does happiness do anything in particular? Or is happiness a good in itself, such that it causes wealth, health, and so on?


Aristotle believed that achieving happiness is all about fulfilling your potential and striving for perfection to the best of your abilities. It requires developing habits, doing what’s right, and following virtues like benevolence, conscience, and self-discipline.


This internal drive leads one towards a moral purpose that cannot be accomplished by merely taking single actions or overnight efforts; rather, this journey calls for learning from experiences over time—making mistakes but becoming wiser and ultimately happier because of them.


To sum up his views on leading a meaningful life, he used the Ancient Greek term “eudaimonia,” which refers not only to the state of achieving external goals, such as wealth or fame, but also the achievement of certain inner states, such as wisdom and virtue. Aristotle emphasized his belief that real fulfillment comes through building character instead of pursuing fleeting gratification.


Moving and Static Pleasures as per Epicurus

john millais ophelia painting
Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-2, via TATE


Imagine you’re having a feast with Epicurus. You’re happily munching away on delicious food, when he starts philosophizing about happiness. He tells you that happiness is not some elusive ghost we must chase but something we can find here and now.


Epicurus’ main point was that pleasure is desirable and pain undesirable; thus, to attain contentment, one should pursue gratification while evading suffering. To Epicureans, enjoyment wasn’t just about indulging in lavish dinners or owning expensive mansions. It involved the absence of deprivation and destitution instead.


Epicurus recognized two types of pleasure: “moving” and “static.”The former is exemplified by the initial rush from biting into a freshly-baked cookie or being promoted at work. Such pleasures are intense but fleeting. Meanwhile, static pleasures have a steadier nature. Think of spending time with friends who make us feel appreciated and cherished—these bring about contentment that lingers much longer.


There is nothing wrong with enjoying an exquisite dinner and expensive wine, but this pleasure will be forgotten by morning. A pleasant conversation with friends, on the other hand, will bring joy for a long time. It will bring us pleasure whenever we recall it. And the most important pleasure to strive for, according to Epicurus, was the absence of anxiety. To describe this condition, he used the word “ataraxia.”


Kant on Happiness as a Duty

gustav klimt death and life painting
Death and Life, Gustav Klimt, 1910-15, via Leopold Museum


Epicurus believed that physical suffering is either strong but short-lived or long but tolerable. Therefore, a person can cope with it. The source of spiritual anxieties is within us. To get rid of anxiety, you need to learn to see the world as it is and appreciate the joys it brings us. Immanuel Kant understood happiness in a very different way.


Kant believed that happiness should be a duty for every person. But here’s where things get interesting: Kant believed that happiness isn’t simply something you stumble upon by chance. Instead, he argued that true happiness comes from the character and ethics with which you direct your behavior.


Happiness isn’t just a fleeting emotion; it’s an ongoing commitment to living life with integrity and honor. It means making choices that reflect your values, even when they may not be easy or popular. We are all responsible for ourselves and others; our actions have consequences that extend far beyond us into the world around us.


Kant argued that we must actively seek out happiness, but here is where things get tricky: simply waiting for it to show up at our doorstep won’t cut it! Happiness has to be earned through how we think, feel, and act.


Nietzsche and His Critique of Happiness

maria dreieichen glory of heaven painting
The Glory of Heaven, Maria Dreieichen, 1752, via Wikimedia Commons


According to Friedrich Nietzsche, happiness is not an unchanging state of being but a momentary emotion based on luck or chance. Rather than pursue this elusive feeling, he proposed that one should accept life’s difficulties and embrace the challenges they present. Joy can be found in facing them head-on with strength and vigor.


To him, contentment was nothing more than a delusion for those who lack ambition. He considers it opposed to aim and aspiration—a comfortable yet meaningless existence.


Nietzsche saw happiness as an ephemeral notion that limits one’s growth potential by keeping one complacent in comfortable surroundings. He urged individuals to stay engaged by actively seeking struggles and taking on roadblocks with tenacity—which ultimately fulfilled them far more than any fleeting moments of joy could ever do!


Is Happiness Real and Achievable?

jan steen dancing couple painting
The Dancing Couple, Jan Steen, 1663, via National Gallery of Art


The question of whether happiness is real or not has been the subject of intense philosophical speculation for millennia. From Aristotle to Kant, Epicurus to Nietzsche, philosophers have grappled with what it means and if its attainment is possible at all. For some, such as Aristotle and Epicurus, true contentment was an achievable aim, whereas others, like Kant, believed that genuine joy could never be reached.


Aristotle’s take can provide us with a valuable insight: he held that living virtuously—fulfilling one’s potential whilst finding purpose in life—was key to achieving blissfulness. As he famously stated, “Happiness is an activity of the soul following virtue.” By striving towards excellence, we are thus able to come closer and closer to experiencing meaningful contentment – something tangible rather than intangible, real rather than ephemeral.


On the other hand, Kant would say that true happiness isn’t attainable since it relies on external factors and circumstances outside our control. For him, pursuing morality through duty was far more important than aiming for fleeting moments of joy.


Nietzsche believed happiness to be a sign of mediocrity. He thought that we should prioritize challenging ourselves, cultivating strength through adversity, and asserting ourselves over societal limitations.


bust of epicurus
Bust of Epicurus, Greco-Roman, from Wikimedia Commons


Epicurus saw the aggregation of individual instances of personal pleasure as paramount to achieving lifelong bliss. He recognized how fleeting such pleasures could be but believed that consistent engagement with them held some value nonetheless.


So what does this tell us about whether or not happiness is a ghost? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that while ghosts seem like elusive entities lurking in the abstract regions of thought, happiness can take on many forms depending on the philosophical lens through which we examine it.


We cannot definitively label happiness as a ghost or anything else entirely. Rather, it will continue to be debated and evolve. It may be a temporary feeling that comes and goes. But for philosophers like Aristotle and Epicurus, it is much more tangible: it is a goal to be pursued—a state of being acquired through consistent effort towards living virtuously or finding pleasure in one’s pursuits.


Certain questions remain unanswered: What is true happiness? What factors influence its attainment? And does it only exist in another life, or can it be experienced here and now?

Author Image

By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.