What Is Happiness?

05.09.2019 |

Episode #1 of the course The philosophy of happiness by Dr. Will Buckingham


Welcome to this course on the philosophy of happiness. I’m Dr. Will Buckingham, a philosopher and writer from the UK, currently based in Greece. I’ve written novels, children’s books, and books on philosophy (including one on happiness), and I’m fascinated by philosophical questions about what makes a good and happy life.

This course is about how philosophers down the ages have thought about happiness. It is about questions like: What is happiness? Why does happiness matter? And how can we live happier lives?

We will be looking at philosophers from across the world and drawing on traditions from Greece, India, and China, as well as on what is sometimes called the contemporary “science of happiness.”


What Do Philosophers Know?

At this point, you may be wondering: What do philosophers know? After all, the stereotype of a philosopher is somebody who is a bit gloomy, sits in their study all day having serious thoughts, and isn’t much fun at parties. If this stereotype contains any grain of truth, why should we listen to philosophers when they talk about happiness?

It would take quite a lot of research to know whether philosophers really are happier or unhappier than the rest of us. But why philosophy matters is that philosophers are very good at asking questions (although they are often less good at providing answers!). Down the ages, philosophers from different traditions have asked fascinating, thought-provoking, and sometimes troubling questions about happiness.

Through exploring these questions, we can come to a richer, deeper understanding of the ideas we ourselves have.


Secret? What Secret?

Some courses on happiness promise that they will reveal “the secret” of happiness. All you have to do is sign up, and by the end, you will be happy. But when you look into different philosophical approaches to happiness, you will start to see that human ideas about happiness are very diverse. In other words, philosophers often disagree widely on what happiness is. We will see in the coming days, for example, that there were two rival philosophies in Ancient Rome, the Stoics and the Epicureans, who argued about what happiness was and how to achieve it.

Who is right in these arguments? This question assumes that there is one single thing that we can call “happiness.” But maybe the word “happiness” refers not just to one thing, but instead, many different things. Maybe not all of these things are compatible. If this is the case, there is no single secret of happiness because there is no single thing we can call “happiness.” Instead, there are different, competing ideas of what makes for a good and happy life.


What Does Happiness Mean to You?

Here, it might be useful to step back and reflect on your own ideas about happiness. Look at the following questions:

• When in your life have you been most happy? Write down one occasion.

• Why were you happy on this occasion? What were the causes of your happiness?

• When you say, “I was happy then,” what do you mean?

Make notes. You can refer back to them later on in the course.


Happiness: Having and Doing

For many philosophers in this course, happiness is not just something you have. It is also something you do. Happiness is about how we live our lives. For this reason, many philosophers tried to find different ways of living so they and others could be happier. As we go on in this course, I will be giving you small experiments of your own to try. They are not compulsory (you can skip them if you like!), but they may help increase your understanding of why the philosophers thought like they did.

Tomorrow, we will be looking at one of the biggest philosophical arguments about happiness in the Western tradition: the question of whether happiness is about pleasure or about virtue and flourishing.

I look forward to seeing you then!

All the best,



Recommended books

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

A Practical Guide to Happiness: Think Deeply and Flourish by Will Buckingham


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