Summary of Lectures for Meaning in Life and Happiness -- Paper #1

Ancient Greek Philosophy

The most important point to remember about Ancient Greek philosophy is that it is a famous example of a self-actualization theory. The Ancient Greeks believed that there may be many ways to be happy but all of these ways must have something in common -- to be happy you must live consistent with our innate human nature. So unlike relativism, postmodernism, and existentialism, the Greeks believed that to be happy you must strive to develop natural potential. You cannot just choose to do anything and be happy. You must live the right way to be happy. There is a right way. If you try to live the life of a hedonist, for instance, you will not be happy because you will not be developing all of your potential.

Implied then in this philosophy is the belief in objectivity in judging happiness, that there is an objective human nature and it must be followed to some extent for a person to be happy. Specifically, the Greeks believed that to be happy you must strive to develop the full potential of the mind and the body. Humans are part of nature; nature has a purpose for everything; the fulfillment of natural purpose equals happiness. Just as a tree given the right environment will naturally develop into a beautiful, healthy tree, so a human who has the right environment and makes the right choices in life will develop into a beautiful, balanced, healthy, and happy individual.

Specifically, we have seen that the Greeks believed it was very important that one develop his or her reasoning and critical thinking abilities. If you don't use your mind, you will not only fail to grow and learn important practical things, but you will be a stunted individual. Also, if you were to just develop your mind, you would also be a stunted individual. Our bodies also have a potential to be developed, and we must learn to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind. Hence, it is no accident that the ancient Greeks were the first to develop democracy, science, and the Olympics.

The final point to remember about ancient Greek philosophy is that happiness comes from striving to develop potential, not in accomplishments. Life then for the ancient Greeks was an ongoing, challenging process where fulfillment was never complete. Peace of mind for the ancient Greeks would be considered boring.

Cynicism and Hedonism

The cynics believe that most people are unhappy because society places a lot of guilty pressure on us. We are supposed to live a certain way and believe certain things about the purpose of life. Most of all, we are suppose to believe in God, a God who will punish us if we don't do the right things. So, we also have to fear what might happen to us when we die.

But the secret, according to the cynics, is that there is no God, purpose, afterlife, or destiny for the human race. In fact, life is purely an accident and totally meaningless. How can this alleged awareness make you happy? Once you "break through" and know these truths, you are free from all the guilty pressures placed on us by society. You no longer have to fear what will happen to you when you die and can start living an independent and self-reliant life.

Cynicism is often used as a foundation for hedonism. Hedonists believe that pleasure should be the number one goal of life on this earth. If there is no God and afterlife, if life is a joke and the joke is on us, then the goal of life should be to obtain as much pleasure as possible. Not later, but right now. Unlike the ancient Greeks, hedonists believe that happiness does not take any work (such as developing potential). Live for the moment (drugs, alcohol, sex, material things). If life is short and death is forever, why not?

See Chapter 14 on dolphins. The hedonists would say that dolphins are smarter and happier than most humans. They play most of the time and have about 10 sexual encounters per day!

Ethical Hedonism

Remember that the key figure historically is Epicurus. Although Epicurus accepted some of the basic points of orthodox hedonism, he did not believe that one should spend his or her life seeking pleasure moment by moment. In fact, he argued that the direct seeking of hedonistic pleasures (sex, food, and material things) actually results in the opposite -- unpleasantness.

As in the case of the Buddha and Buddhism, Epicurus believed that the secret to life was learning to control desire. The wise man, according to Epicurus, learns to live a simple life and not attempt to structure life on the basis of big expectations and desires. Also, Epicurus argued that one can't be happy using others to satisfy individual desires. Hence, his version of hedonism is often called "ethical" hedonism, since the ethical treatment of and consideration of other people is part of living a happy life. It is more practical, because the more one uses others, the more likely one will be used by others.


The stoics believe that there is a rational, good, super force controlling all events, and everything is happening just the way it is supposed to be. Life is not an accident. There is a purpose (although usually hidden) to everything.

The key to happiness then is learning that it is not what happens to us, but how we think about what happens to us. If we trust the force to be good, we can view all things positively. The wise person learns to control emotions, avoid negative judgments, and live life like an actor on a stage as though whatever is happening to us is not really affecting us. If something "bad" happens, it is only bad due to our interpretation of the event. Behind the scenes so to speak, everything is happening for the best.

Maslow's Self-Actualization Theory

As with the ancient Greeks, Maslow believes that humans have innate biological tendencies that are basically good. Human nature, given the right environment, is good. We are biologically programmed to be happy, and will be happy, if we are given the right environment.

Unlike the Greeks, Maslow places a lot less emphasis upon developing the mind and our reasoning ability to be happy. Maslow believes that to be happy, a person must go beyond just wanting things for oneself and that this will naturally happen if our basic needs are met. In other words, the biggest mistake people make is thinking that happiness involves things we need to get. Sure material things are important, but material things should be instruments for security, a basic need, and to be really happy, to fulfill our biological potential, we need to feel what Maslow calls "otherdirectedness." So there are things we need to receive -- food, sex, affection, security, self-esteem (basic needs), and there are things we need to feel (Maslow calls these meta-needs). Otherdirectedness means that we need to feel a sense of caring for something outside ourselves. We need to care, love, and have concern for others, be concerned about justice for others, have a desire to gain knowledge for its own sake, or be involved in the development of something (a cause, a family, a business) for its own sake.


It is worth comparing Maslow's self-actualization theory with that of Christianity. Christianity can also be classified as a self-actualization theory of happiness from the point of view that Christians will also claim that a human being cannot be happy unless one develops a truly humanitarian sense of love and justice for others. This is sometimes called "unconditioned love," and is very similar to Maslow's concept of otherdirectedness. A major difference, however, is that Christians do not believe that the development of this love for others can be achieved by ourselves; we must have God's help. In other words, Maslow believes that humans are born with the natural biological potential to achieve otherdirectedness. As with the Greeks, Maslow believes that nature has provided us with all that we need. Christians believe that we are born basically lost and selfish by nature, and that we would not be able to achieve a true sense of otherdirectedness unless we have the example of Jesus Christ and give up control over our own lives. In other words, through Jesus only can we realize our true human potential. We must achieve a state of awareness whereby we feel God's love for us, take it in, and redirect it back out to others.

So unlike the Greeks who believed that humans could achieve happiness without any aid from their gods by simply developing natural potential, and unlike Maslow who believed humans can achieve happiness by developing our biological potential, Christians believe that happiness is impossible without divine help. This is a very important philosophical difference.

We sometimes speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition or philosophy, and we can add to this tradition the religion of Islam. What all three religions have in common is the belief in meaning in life and a plan for everything directed by a single Supreme Being or God. A large part of the theory of happiness for these religions involves then a belief in objective justice. A Jew, Christian, or Muslim can be secure in their belief that no matter what happens on this Earth, no matter how many bad things happen to us or to others, no matter how often it seems that bad people get away with terrible actions, no matter how often it seems that bad people are the one's who prosper, the truth is, someday there will be justice. God has a plan and the plan is good and fair.


As noted in class we include existentialism in our discussion of theories of human nature and happiness for only indirect reasons. Existentialists deny that there is some essential human nature that must be followed, and in its most radical form, denies that happiness is possible at all. All that is possible is honesty, but do not make the mistake that the existentially honest person, the "authentic person" to use Sartre's language, is happy. Life is crazy and the best one can do is be honest about it. That awareness will not, as the cynic claims, make you feel better.

So, the existentialists would disagree with the basic approach of all the philosophies above. According to Sartre, "existence precedes essence." Even if there is some essence to human nature, humans are the strangest of animals – we are free to reject our essence. We can reject the theories of everyone of the philosophies discussed thus far, no matter what kind of evidence exists for those philosophies. We are free and can reject what is allegedly natural. Thus, the correct way of understanding life is not to find out our essential human nature and then follow it; but rather to be aware that there cannot be an objective, certain justification for any philosophy of life. All one can have is an honest, subjective leap of faith to a belief system and a way of life and then be totally responsible for the choice. Kierkegaard is probably the best example of this approach. He believed in God, but was very critical of those who professed to have proof.

According to the existentialists, objectivity is not only a myth -- there can be no certain, objective justification for any theory of life -- it is also a way of avoiding responsibility. According to Sartre, most people live in "bad faith." They pretend that they are doing what they are doing because they have to; they are forced to live a certain way or believe certain things because the objective evidence forces them to live this way or believe what they do. The truth is, according to Sartre, we choose who we are by choosing to live a certain way and believe certain things. According to Sartre, there is no exit (escape) from the fact that we are "condemned to be free." Most people bury this awareness in bad faith because it is terrifying to admit that no one knows what is going on, that we are totally lost, that life is "absurd," and we are totally free to choose any philosophy and do not have any good objective reasons for our choice. Even if you have reasons for your beliefs, you still have to choose the reasons for ultimately no reason.

Bottom line. It is just as radical to rebel as to conform to society's norms. It is just as radical to believe in God as not to believe in God. The only issue is whether one is honest about the choice.

For more on Sartre's philosophy, see Chapter 4, "The Case for Freedom," in the textbook by White.

Mysticism (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

"The whole point of Buddhism may be summed up as living in the present.  Dhiravamsa

Mysticism actually consists of a number of philosophical ideas that can be found in almost all of the world's major religions. It is most associated, however, with Hinduism, Buddhism, and the philosophies of Eastern cultures. Unlike the existentialists, mystics believe there is an answer to the meaning of existence and that behind the apparent suffering and absurdity of life, there is a beautiful harmony. But like the existentialists, mystics agree that this answer cannot be known rationally, proved objectively, or even be described with language. It can only be experienced. Basically this experience (commonly described as a "mystic" experience, hence the name mysticism) involves a view of reality as an interconnected oneness that differs radically from our normal, commonsense view of reality as full of separate things and people. For the mystics, all is one.

In Hinduism the goal is enlightenment and it is believed that people who are not enlightened are caught in Samsara (a rat race of one problem after another). For the most part, Samsara is the reality that the existentialists claim is real, the world of insecurity and anxiety, the world of one problem after another. There is a solution, however. Recognizing that our normal common sense reality is maya (illusion), we recognize via an experience of an interconnected oneness that reality is much more than we thought it was.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe in reincarnation and Karma. Every decision that we make and every thought that we have has a causal effect on our character, which in turn influences our thoughts and how we will relate to reality, which in turn influences what kind of character will be reborn in another life.

Rather than concentrating on the metaphysical aspects of these beliefs, I have urged you to reflect on the message related to living a happy life in this world. Consider this Buddhist quote from the movie "Beyond Rangoon,"

"We Buddhists believe that suffering is the one guarantee in this life, so if happiness comes accept it as a precious gift, for it will be temporary."

What does this mean? When the Buddhists say that all life is suffering, they are not simply talking about physical pain and tragedy. In many ways they are talking about the same underlying anxiety that the existentialists talked about. No matter what you accomplish, no matter how wealthy you become, you will still feel insecure and full of anxiety. No matter what your material success, you will still feel that life is just one problem after another. The Buddhist solution to this life problem is the recognition that this anxiety and insecurity are actually related to one's perception of reality, which in turn is caused by one's thoughts, which ultimately are caused by one's desires. Notice the similarity to Epicurus and Stoicism. Desires cause thoughts and attitudes. But like a dirty mirror with smudges on it, these thoughts interfere with seeing reality clearly. If your mind is full of thoughts, then like a beehive of buzzing bees, the true sound of reality is blocked.  This understanding is very important for being able to truly live in the present as the quote from Dhiravamsa above states.  The implication is that normally we don't really enjoy the fullness of every moment, because we are so preoccupied with so many thoughts.  So we spend most of our life not seeing the beauty that is all around us.

Hence, both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize meditation as a way of controlling thoughts and seeing reality more clearly. In this way, one will be able to calmly accept what happens to you in this life and be prepared for the happiness that will come as a precious gift. Put simply, there are precious gifts from life all around you every day. But for most of us, our minds are too full of worries to see them.


Marxism is covered in our textbook in relation to purpose in life, so we will make a few points about it here.

Marx's basic point is that capitalism, materialistic values, and competition are inconsistent with human nature, so people working in a capitalistic society will be unhappy (alienated from their true selves).

According to Marx, capitalism is a trick; it is backed by so-called philosophies of individual freedom but these philosophies are smoke screens where the real hidden agenda is to accept inequality and a casino mentality. In other words, we are told that we are free to compete, but this just becomes a justification for the winners to take more from the losers. Most people will always be losers in a capitalistic society. Most importantly, according to Marx the majority of people will have to work in jobs whereby they are like ants in an ant colony or cogs in a machine. This is because productivity in a capitalistic society is not concerned with quality but only with quantity and making every product as cheaply as possible to insure greater profit. Ultimately, capitalism makes people unhappy because it sets up a system that alienates us from our real human nature. We compete rather than cooperate and focus our entire lives on materialistic values.

As noted in class, most of the jobs that people have now in the modern new economy are very different than the mass production sweat shops that existed at the time of Marx's criticism of capitalism. Followers of Marx today, however, would claim that even new economy jobs involve alienating relationships with others in society and even with one’s own family, and most of the mass production sweat shops have now been exported to poor, developing countries.

If nothing else, Marx's critique should make us reflect on the type of job we will accept and whether the work is fulfilling or ant- or machine-like.