Well-Being//

Here’s What Aristotle’s Ancient Wisdom Can Teach Us about Emotional Well-being

It still applies today.

MirageC/Getty Images
MirageC/Getty Images

No better dissection has ever been performed of the multiform psychological miseries which the immoral inflict upon themselves by their own inconsistent behavior.

Aristotle was born in Stageira, into a prosperous and apparently loving family in a free, self- governing city- state in a beautiful location washed by the sea and with a backdrop of woods and mountains. I think his idea of happiness as consistent virtuous activity within a flourishing community was fundamentally informed by his childhood memories. In later life he remained loyal to his childhood home town. Philip of Macedon conquered it and destroyed some of its buildings in 348 BCE. He enslaved all the surviving inhabitants. But he relented when Aristotle begged him to rebuild it and restore the citizens’ freedom. In the town center are the remains of a marble colonnade, with an inbuilt bench, where the free, self- governing Stageirites, including Aristotle’s father, gathered for debate.

I agree with Aristotle, who may have had these happy childhood memories, that children can’t be happy in the full sense, because they have so little of their lives under their belts and are so swayed by the desire for instant gratification that thinking long-term is quite impossible. This makes me very sympathetic to young adults as well; not only are they often financially and emotionally insecure, but they have far more opportunity remaining to them for serious random misfortune than the middle- aged or elderly. The only advice is that they should be true to themselves. Their state of mind will not be constantly liable to complete change or annihilation, like “a chameleon, or a house built on the sand” as Aristotle puts it.

The most serious threat to securing happiness is sheer bad luck. In the Eudemian Ethics Aristotle devotes many pages to the relationship between your internal self as a moral agent— your ability to determine your own behavior and control your destiny— and the random bad luck you may encounter which is utterly beyond your control. Aristotle’s favorite example of unlucky suffering on an epic scale is Priam. The king of the prosperous and happy Trojan realm, with fifty children, lost both his kingdom and all his sons to the invading Greeks before dying an ignominious death on his own city’s altar. And he had done nothing to deserve any of this. My own example is Sonali Deraniyagala, an economics lecturer at London University, who lost both her children, both her parents and her husband in the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami. She has been through indescribable pain since. She has no religious faith, and says that it was only through the disciplined use of deliberate recollection (an intensely Aristotelian technique) that she has managed to stay alive and, with extraordinary psychological efforts, recover parts of her old “self” at last. She recorded the whole experience in her beautifully written memoir Wave (2013). It is humbling. Small changes, caused by luck, as Aristotle says, “clearly do not change the whole course of life”; on the other hand, “great and frequent reverses can crush and mar our bliss both by the pain they cause and by the hindrance they offer to many activities.”

Yet Sonali Deraniyagala is still alive, sees friends, works again and occasionally laughs. Aristotle would have commented that it is possible to undergo even apparently unendurable disasters and still try to Live Well: “even in adversity goodness shines through, when someone endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience; this is not owing to insensibility but from generosity and greatness of soul.” In this sense, the Aristotelian imperative to pursue happiness at all costs is a profoundly optimistic moral system.

A primordial Greek proverb maintained that nobody could ever be called happy until they were dead. It was a favorite saying of Solon, an Athenian leader and one of the “Seven Wise Men” of the Greeks. He once visited the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, Croesus. Croesus wanted Solon to agree that he, Croesus, was the happiest man in the world. He was annoyed when Solon chose an ordinary Athenian named Tellus, who lived a long life, lived to see all his grandchildren, all of whom survived him, and died fighting for the country he loved. Solon’s point was that misfortune could strike at any time, and so a person’s total happiness cannot be assessed until after they have died. This turned out to be eerily prophetic: Croesus’ son was soon afterward killed in an accident, his wife committed suicide and he lost his kingdom to the Persians. Aristotle cites Solon’s precept, and approves of it insofar as it requires thinking about your future and how you are going to face the challenges it brings.


Solon’s advice “look to the end” is timeless. It doesn’t matter whether you are a teenager beginning to plan your life, a burned- out midlife professional, or a pensioner wanting to make the most of the remaining years of your life. None of us wants to be haunted on our deathbed either by guilt or the knowledge that there was something we didn’t achieve simply because we were too scared to try. In 2012 Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse who has attended to many people during their last few weeks, published a moving account of the most common regrets they have expressed to her.7 These chime almost miraculously with the pitfalls Aristotle advises us to avoid as we create happiness over our lifetimes. People say “I wish that I had let myself be happier,” thus acknowledging that they had somehow let the opportunity to be self- sufficient and choose to make their own happiness pass them by. They wish they had made more effort with friendships (one of Aristotle’s most important principles). But the most frequently expressed regret is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Published with permission from Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall.

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