I think I agree with your general inference, as I read it: namely, that true human fulfillment (the Aristotelian “good life,” or eudaimonia) is more valuable and more desirable than what Jennifer Senior calls “happiness.” But I want to make two points in response to your post: The first is a cautious suggestion that perhaps your understanding of eudaimonia is thin on happiness. The second is a case for the imprudence of ceding the word “happiness” to those–like Senior–who fail to properly understand it.
As I read your commentary on Senior’s piece, it sounds to me like you’re saying something along the lines of: “Forget happiness! What we really want is eudaimonia!” I think, though, that a fully developed understanding of eudaimonia implies a lot of the same things that we find in the word “happiness” commonly understood, and even some of the things that Jennifer Senior means by it. Yes, Aristotle emphasizes communal life and responsibility, but he’s not a Stoic. As you very well know, the Greek eudaimonia means “good-spiritedness”–a concept that most of us intuitively connect, if not identify, with happiness. More than that, though, Aristotle’s good life is defined by the exercise of virtue. To live well is to live virtuously. And virtue, for Aristotle, is inextricable from pleasure; it is the state of finding pleasure in the good and displeasure in the bad. Sure, the virtuous person will frequently endure unpleasant circumstances, but Aristotle argues that virtuous action is the kind most likely to produce true happiness in the well-formed man. You allude to this with your point about learning to love parenthood and when you say “the best life will end up desiring the best things,” but I think a well-rounded treatment of eudaimonia requires stronger emphasis on the idea that a well-lived life is going to make man happier than any other kind of life.
This brings me to my second point, which may prove to resolve the first. As far as I can tell, you are using the word eudaimonia to refer to the Aristotelian good life and the word “happiness” in the same way that Senior uses it: interchangeably with things like “the experience of pleasure,” “the absence of any hardship,” and “the fulfillment of desire.” This may have been a strategic decision and one made solely for the sake of clarity, but I want to push hard for the proposition that it was an unwise one. If you accept an understanding of eudaimonia that bears any connection at all to a common-sense, everyday-language understanding of happiness (and if you don’t, I would love to hear why not), then allowing “happiness” to serve as a foil for eudamonia (e.g., “the fulfillment of desires may lead to happiness, but not necessarily eudaimonia”) is both misleading and incoherent. Doing justice to eudaimonia is essential for the success of any argument–like yours–that seeks to emphasize the value of the well-lived life over a shallow view of life as one big party. If you allow Jennifer Senior’s constricted understanding of “happiness” to co-opt the term that everyone understands as his ultimate goal, you disserve everyone: sociologists cannot see how their findings fail to answer fundamental human questions, your colleagues cannot understand your argument, and the average reader cannot understand that living virtuously will actually bring him happiness.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.