Before we discuss if we have a “right to be happy” or “how can we be happy,” we must first decide what we mean by ‘happiness.’

The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action.  In most European languages, happy meant lucky.  Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.


A little history behind the “Pursuit of Happiness”:The word ‘Happiness’ in Pursuit of Happiness came from Jefferson’s understanding of English Philosophy, specifically Locke and Hutcheson, and the notion of people (in a nation) having a measurable happiness engendered by good governance and in leading virtuous lives.This has its roots in Greek Philosophy.

The Greeks ask, “how ought one to live.”The full question is really, “How ought one to live to achieve a good life.”In order to know our direction in life, we must first understand our goal, so the Greeks spend a lot of time trying to define “what is a good life.”

Incidentally, yes, that is a tattoo on my arm. "Eudaimonia."  I once asked myself, "What would be interesting enough to me that I might scar my body with it?"

Aristotle often used the word ‘Eudaimonia’ as the word for the state or result of a “good life.”“We shall call a good life a Eudaimonious one.”Roughly translated, Eudaimonia means “Well-Spirited.”Now, for the word “spirit,” we have to make a distinction between Judeo/Christian common usage of ‘spirit,’ something to do with a soul or ghosts, etc, and the Greeks understanding of an essence.


I will avoid diving totally into Ancient Greek philosophy of the essences but, here is what you need to know:An “Essence” is that which defines a thing.There may be argument/discussion about what that particular defining thing is (is a hammer’s essence a matter of its shape, its function, its history, a combination of these things, or something else?), but we can all agree that the notion of something having a defining quality is an inevitable, logical consequence of calling one group a this and another group a that.

Like all things, humans share a quality or qualities which defined them as human.This is their essence, the thing or things which make them human and not something else.They named that human essence, that which defines us as humans, ‘daimon,’ or, in English, ‘spirit.’So, our spirit is our essence, that which defines us as human.

To be “Well-Spirited,” then, is to have those qualities which define us as human be at their best.It is important to note, again, that this is a notion of general being, not one of how one feels in an instant.

‘Happiness’ now comes in at the point of translation.When, throughout the ages, we have translated the Greek word Eudaimonia , we typically translated it into the word Happiness.This, etymologically speaking, was a mistake.Happiness did have the general meaning of a good life, but it was bred in an understanding that such a life was the result of luck and circumstance, a “happy-accident” if you will, and not one of choice and action.

To appreciate a Eudaimonious life, by contrast, we must appreciate the will and the reason which leads to self-discovery and positive choices.From the original Greek philosophy, we are meant to try to understand that which defines our humanity, and to strive for its perfect realization.It could be suggested, then, that a more accurate translation of the word Eudaimonia is the word ‘flourishing.’

(‘The Pursuit of Flourishing’ – to be sure, it’s not as catchy, but see how our understanding changes as we look at the history of the philosophy behind it?)

The concept of a well-spirited life leads to a notion of the virtues: tenets of prime character (for the Greeks this is: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice).To pursue a virtuous life, then, was to pursue a life which benefited the individual, but also the the class of humans as a whole.


To understand the “pursuit of happiness,” we must appreciate that the founders envisioned a nation of flourishing, virtuous citizens.One can debate on the quality or measure of the virtues, or the nature of that quality of essence which would thereby prescribe them, but one cannot debate that such qualities must be defined in order to find out “how one ought to live” or what it means to be truly happy.

So, what is happiness?I’ll leave that to your own contemplation.But the pursuit of happiness is clear: We are seeking a life of reason, choice and action which will have us be at our best.  Though we seek this as individuals, we are seeking the success of those defining, human characteristics which we all share.

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THOMAS WOOD grew up in the nearly quaint, upscale town of Newport Beach, California, and left at nineteen when his father passed away. After traveling for a few years, he settled in San Francisco and got a degree in Philosophy from UC Berkeley. He lives with his beautiful girlfriend in San Francisco, works in medicine as a logistical coordinator for organ donation, and writes in his spare time, hoping to some day feel comfortable with the moniker, 'writer.' His personal blog is ModernSophist.com. You can follow him on the Twitter at Modern_Sophist

24 responses to “The Pursuit of “What is Happiness?””

  1. Slade Ham says:

    Well, the theme around here has most certainly been consistent. Eudaimonia or Happiness, now at least we know where it all comes from.

  2. Mary Richert says:

    I am going to learn how to pronounce “Eudaimonious” and start using it. Thanks so much for this post. It was AWESOME! (That is my highly educated and philosophical analysis.)

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Thomas, is that your happy arm there?

    • Thomas Wood says:

      My god, yes, I forgot to mention that. I had this whole disclaimer underneath it as a caption but it wasn’t formatting right.

      Here’s the original Caption:

      “Incidentally, yes, that is a tattoo on my arm. “Eudaimonia.” I once asked myself, “What would be interesting enough to me that I might scar my body with it?””

  4. jmblaine says:

    I heard my grandmother once say
    “It’s nice for my kids to be happy
    but more important that they be good.”

    That always struck me.
    I think DCS would step in these days
    if something of that sort were said.

    We need a good TNB staff philosopher.

    • Thomas Wood says:

      Yeah, really excellent point about grandmother’s happiness. It’s pretty easy to get from a place of being good to being miserable, given the right switch (stick switch, not light switch).

      As for resident philosopher, I’ll take the nomination, but that might really confuse the ongoing struggle to be, eventually, funnier than Slade Ham.

  5. Becky says:

    I think the question of what defines a thing’s (or entity’s, or creature’s) essence is not a good thing to gloss over, though, in any complete discussion of this issue, especially when it comes to humans. (This is not a criticism, since I realize it wasn’t your intention to answer it for us, I just think anyone trying to answer it will have to make a decision in this regard.)

    This question of human nature seems to be at the heart of just about everything–ethics, politics, morality, religion…the list goes on.

    I don’t mean to really start that discussion, as it tends to be endless and more often than not futile, usually ending in any number of hopeless discussions about God and/or the singularity, but I think it is impossible for an individual (or maybe even a culture?) to get very far in their pursuit of humanness if she/he/they have no idea of what humanness is. Superlatives like “best,” don’t mean much if we don’t know “in terms of what?”

    This is aside from what the founding fathers may have thought. I’m speaking in a general way.

    • Thomas Wood says:


      An excellent point about the importance of understanding the essence. I think you’re right, with just a small note. From my own experience (a disclaimer that this isn’t any philosophical argument, just my own twenty-seven cents) I’ve come to appreciate that an understanding of the process, of the argument, of the care and consideration for how words work and how to question things, plays a bigger role in my personal success than any ‘truths’ I think I’ve sorted out. It’s a lot like how I explain the point of a Philosophy degree. Folks (parents especially) would say, “Oh, that’s nice, and, well..uh…what does one do with that?” I’d have to explain to them that it wasn’t a degree of set facts or answers, like biology, but focused, instead, on the pursuit of understanding and practiced the rigors of logic and reason. Anyhow, the whole thing pleases the hell out of me.

      I’m inclined to disagree with your statement, “superlatives like “best,” don’t mean much…”

      I get what you’re saying here, that it’s like saying a recipe calls for a half a cup of BLANK (and your right, this isn’t an essay that’s trying to open the two decades of study such a topic deserves). But I would argue that there is quite a lot of value, almost mathematical, certainly logical, in knowing something’s rough formula. I appreciate that there is no tangible, semantic value, however.

      I’ll leave it at that so as not to overwhelm our slight comment board here.

      Again, really appreciate your thoughts.

  6. Richard Cox says:

    Wow, this was great, Thomas. It obviously makes sense to pursue a flourishing, virtuous life. I feel sort of dumb making a comment on Mary’s post about Jefferson’s intentions when I had no background from which to do so.

    I still contend that whatever we call it, Americans have a tendency to long for something that doesn’t exist. I don’t mean to disparage us as a country because I’m an American and I love it here. However, when I’ve traveled to other countries, invariably the people in those places seem more realistic about life than us. As a general population. Maybe part of the reason for this is we, as a whole, don’t want for much so we have the luxury and time to wish for more? Maybe it’s been so long since we’ve experienced nationwide disaster, like a war on our soil, or real, widespread poverty, etc, that affords us this luxury? I’m sure much has been written about this by people who have done actual research, so I’m probably not adding anything here. It’s just a general sense I get. Also, our stories seem to reflect this way of being. Films and television that have life all neatly wrapped up. I mean if you watch foreign films you get a very different sense of their expectations for life. Or so it seems to me.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for writing it.

    • Thomas Wood says:

      Richard, I actually quite liked your comment on Mary’s and it was, in part, your comment that made me wonder about the whole mess and get all drawn back in to my love for the Eudaimonia discussion.

      Now, as to your reflections on the American want.

      That’s a super interesting one.

      Myself, I’m inclined to agree with you, that there is some kind of realism I’ve experienced when traveling, some kind of acceptance. I couldn’t put my finger on it until your analogy, and I think you’re right, it’s totally that entitlement to a happy ending. For myself, it reminds me of how the French say (and, to be sure, they actually, no-fucking-joking-here, say this) “Yes, but of course…” All wrapped up in this is a kind of appreciation for the human condition, for the simple joys and sorrows of a life.

      And then I doubt it sometimes too, because I don’t entirely trust my impression when I’m traveling. There’s such a fantasy to travel, isn’t there? Even when you’re living somewhere else, isn’t there a sense of being someone else, and of everyone else fulfilling some odd, constructed thing in your head. I wonder about that, anyhow. Maybe, again, this is all built in to my youth, maybe it’s that idealizing American in me that see’s the whole world as romantic.

      But okay, so what is it then? What is the American Entitlement?

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    “Eudaimonia”. I had previously never encountered this word before. Thanks, Thomas!

    Germaine Greer (and I apologise for any mistakes in paraphrasing) said something once about true happiness is found in spontaneity. I agree and disagree with that – I think she’s right, but I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive.

    In terms of travel: often it can be the reduction of unhappiness and the whirlwind of new experience that creates such a powerful lure. But then again, that could be termed happiness, I guess.

    Ack! Look at what you two have started…

  8. Thomas Wood says:

    So happy to provide you with a bit of the Greek. Shall I expect a South of the Equator from you?

  9. Lorna says:

    I always consider myself to be a lucky girl but never really knew, until now, that it is part of the equation in the pursuit of happiness. 🙂

  10. Lenore says:

    happiness is when you don’t have to do stuff you don’t want to do. i slept till 3:30 pm the other day. that felt really happy to me, but everyone called me depressed. fucking idiots.

  11. Tom Hansen says:

    Great post. Lots to chew on, for sure. There’s some truth to “happiness’ being found in spontaneity or by happenstance, which is why traveling usually brings fond memories to those who have done it. It’s all those new experiences, the surprise and discovery. And yet so many people it seems look for a kind of “happiness” via a flawed logic, like inserting some information into a computer program in order to find a soul mate.

    I think “happiness” is inseparable from “meaning,” as in a person finding a way to make their life mean something more significant than simply ego or consumption. For example “work” only means something if it provides you with something greater. In the case of writing for example, what I consider my “work”, it doesn’t mean money because it don’t pay for shit, but the creation of something culturally relevant and original (I know others have different goals for their art). In the case of someone whose not an artist, “work” provides them with a means to support a family, the old “immortality” thing, leaving children to carry on their legacy.

    Which is why so many people are messed up these days. They hate their “work” and only do it out of fear or to maintain some illusion of “living.” Again, great post. One I’m gonna revisit.

  12. […] …and Thomas Wood. […]

  13. Nick1254367 says:


    Interesting thoughts!

    By asking “what is happiness” you ask a very good question. Recently I had my own shot at defining happiness, which aims to be more “scientific” and “objective” (as much as this is possible for a subjective feeling such as happiness):

    “A person can be considered to have experienced a “happy” moment if the person chooses to re-live it as an end in itself if offered at no cost.”

    For the detailed derivation of this conclusion please have a look at What is happiness? ; What do you think about this definition?

    Thank you,


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