The song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams has gone viral, topping the charts in the United States and twenty-two other countries. It was nominated as Best Original Song for the Academy Awards on March 2, 2014, nudged out only by “Let it Go” from Frozen. After Mr. Williams released a twenty-four hour version of “Happy” featuring various people dancing to the song, with cameo appearances of Magic Johnson, Sergio Mendes, Jimmy Kimmel, Jamie Foxx, and Steve Carell, the craze caught on for others to do the same.

As of May this year, more than 1500 videos from the world over have been posted showing people dancing to “Happy,” from college students and spry oldsters in the United States to exuberant boppers in countries as far flung as Armenia, Brazil, Albania, and New Zealand. Decidedly unhappy police in Iran arrested fans dancing to the song authorities deemed “vulgar” and a threat to “public chastity.” But the Iranian president tweeted “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” The prisoners were released. “Happy” has been picked up for ads by Fiat and Dr. Dre, among others, and recorded by other artists including Pentatonix. It was also performed by late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon impersonating Vladimir Putin.

What is it that has sparked this world-wide craze of happiness? It cannot be just the lyrics:


[Verse 1:]
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

[Verse 2:]
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why


Hey, come on

Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said (let me tell you now)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said

[Chorus 2x]

Do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I find this song irresistibly catchy. If I am having a hard time getting rolling in the morning, my husband knows that the minute I hear this song, my legs kick off the sheets and before the song is half-finished, I am up and clapping along. I cannot help myself. But I have to wonder about the message. Is being happy just a matter of deciding to be? The closest Mr. Williams gets to content is in the lines “clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth, clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”

What is happiness? Aristotle, in his discourse in the Nichomachean Ethics, says that happiness is identified with “living well and doing well”[1], though he admits that people differ about what they think will make them happy. Is it pleasure, wealth, honor, wisdom, or political power?[2] Aristotle contends that man does not gain happiness by acquiring goods, and that in fact it “is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods…enough for the performance of good actions.”[3] Most people spend a great deal of their life’s energies pursuing money, but Aristotle warns that “men have been undone by reason of their wealth.”[4] Anyone who has lived long enough to see the effect of great wealth on the third generation to inherit it knows Aristotle is right. Besides, wealth exists only to achieve something else, meaning it is only a secondary good.

Aristotle concludes that external goods for their own sake will not bring happiness.[5] Likewise, wielding power does not produce happiness, and may in fact destroy it. Pleasure and amusement are illusory goals as well.[6] If we choose pleasure to achieve happiness, pleasure, too, is a secondary good. Happiness, on the other hand, is something “final and self-sufficient.”[7]

So what is happiness, then? Aristotle says, “Happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue.”[8] True happiness depends on a certain kind of understanding of the mind and soul to correctly apprehend what is true. The well-formed mind is put into practice, as the soul directs human action toward living in virtue.  Happiness is the gift that is bestowed on one who lives virtue. We obtain it not because we seek it, but happiness comes almost unbidden, as a by-product of a virtuous life.

This virtue can be intellectual, moral, philosophic understanding, practical wisdom, or moral temperance, but Aristotle makes it clear that the good life is concerned with action, not merely thought.[9] However, training of the mind is necessary. Happiness “comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training.”[10] But it is well worth waiting for: “The prize and end of virtue is something godlike and blessed.”[11]

In the same discourse, Aristotle also talks about friendship as an important aspect of happiness. He says friendship characterized by mutual love and respect is the highest good.[12] If the love is for the sake of one’s own pleasure or utility of the other, that is a limited relationship of no lasting value, easily dissolved. “Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other…and they are good themselves.”[13] Such friendship is enduring because mutual loves involves choice, which “springs from a state of character; and men which wish well to those whom they love.”[14] Aristotle is showing us here another important aspect of happiness, which is based on love.

So happiness depends on the action of the soul in living virtue: in relation to material things, to the world of the intellect, and to lived relationships with other humans. The ability to understand the necessary balance is the fruit of contemplation, and it is here that Aristotle shows us one more aspect of happiness: “Perfect happiness is a contemplative activity.”[15] The soul must learn to see what is true, discern the difference between pleasure and happiness, learn to hate that which is base, and treasure that which is truly good.[16] So in this full-orbed description of the aspects of human life, Aristotle completes the definition of happiness. The well-ordered mind must know truth and the soul must pursue virtue. For the man who lives the good life, pursuing excellence in all things, seeking the highest good, while living in morality and mutual love, the contentment of happiness will be the prize.

So, there you have it: Aristotle’s version of happiness in a nutshell. It is a great message…but you cannot dance to it. I understand why people are listening to Pharrell Williams singing “Happy” instead.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on the concept of happiness. The other essays may be found here and hereBooks on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  


1. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, (1:4)
2. (1:4-5)
3. (7:3)
4. (1:3)
5. (3:4)
6. (10:6)
7. (1:8)
8. (1:13)
9. (1:13)
10. (1:9)
11. ibid.
12. (2:3)
13. ibid.
14. (2:5)
15. (10: 8)
16. ibid.

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