Ancient Secrets for Creating a Happy Life

Aristotle statue with foliage located in Stageira, Greece

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When we talk about happiness in modern life, we might be referring to the feeling we get after the first lick of a delicious ice cream cone or when spending an afternoon with good friends. This way of thinking about happiness as pleasure suggests that it is a subjective, emotional state, susceptible to the moment-to-moment experience we are having.

Although feeling good is a part of happiness, some ancient schools of thought defined happiness more broadly. In particular, Aristotle believed that the ultimate aim of human life was a concept of ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. The word is often translated as “happiness,” but more likely means “human flourishing” or “a good life.” Rather than an emotion or temporary mood, eudaimonia is better assessed by asking, “What do I want to be remembered for when my life is over?”

Aristotle’s prescription for living a good life was to exercise virtue: To be kind, humble, wise, and honest in our actions, consistently. Being a good person, in other words, is the recipe for a happy life.

Universal Virtues

Modern psychology has embraced Aristotle’s notion with the development of a comprehensive list of character strengths and virtues. Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman assessed the values of cultures across human history and identified the 24 most universal virtues or character strengths. These strengths represent what most people would label as good character, including hope, gratitude, fairness, and love.

Research now supports the theory that developing and using these strengths of character ​leads to increased happiness. To put the ancient wisdom of eudaimonia to work for you, consider the virtues Aristotle encouraged his students to develop in themselves.

Patience

The desire for instant gratification can easily turn minor annoyance into anger. Exerting patience means managing your temper in accordance with the situation. If you catch yourself tapping your foot and checking your watch waiting in line at a coffee shop, first assess whether or not your anger is helping the situation. If not, let it go.

If your impatience is directed squarely at another person, work to develop empathy and put yourself in their shoes. If someone cuts you off in traffic, for example, consider what might be going on for them and what their intentions are.

Courage

While patience is a virtue, too much patience can lead you to be a pushover. Having courage, particularly in the face of injustice, is virtuous too. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather an appropriate balance of fear and confidence.

Do you tend to be overly confident or overly fearful? If you lean too often towards fear, find opportunities to challenge yourself, such as by having a hard conversation or saying yes when invited to do something that intimidates you.

If you’re the overconfident type, on the other hand, you might take on challenges that are too big. Or you might have frequent conflicts with others because you don't acknowledge their strengths or perspectives. But just like someone who is fearful, you benefit from learning new things—and from valuing the effort you put into them, rather than the outcome.

Temperance

Remember that second piece of pie you were reaching for last night? Did you really need it? Temperance is about moderation. By all means, we should have a slice of pie and savor it. But too much of any good thing corrodes happiness, particularly as guilt and self-loathing set it.

Two Ways to Exercise Self-Restraint

  1. When you choose to take pleasure in something, allow yourself to be fully present and enjoy it.
  2. Set appropriate limits for yourself and stick to them. Have a plan ahead of time and know that you’ll boost your happiness more by sticking to your limit than by breaking it.

Friendship

In Aristotle’s view, friendship was one of the highest virtues. He acknowledged that friendships often exist for purely practical reasons. But true friendship is about a connection between two people who admire each other and encourage each other to reach their full potential.

Such friendships are rare. These are not the hundreds of connections you have on Facebook or LinkedIn. These are the people you call in the middle of the night when you need someone to be there for you. Investing in and nurturing these relationships is foundational to supporting our own happiness. Identify who these people are in your life and let them know how much you appreciate them. Those conversations are a happiness win-win.

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Article Sources

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  1. Peterson C, Seligman MEP. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

  2. Mackenzie CS, Karaoylas EC, Starzyk KB. Lifespan differences in a self determination theory model of eudaimonia: A cross-sectional survey of younger, middle-aged, and older adults. J Happiness Studies. 2018;19(8):2465-2487. doi:10.1007/s10902-017-9932-4

  3. Gartner C. Aristotle on love and friendship. In Christopher Bobonich (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.