Seneca on Being (Un)happy and the Bar of Fulfillment

Seneca on Being (Un)happy and the Bar of Fulfillment March 28, 2023

Happiness can be a tricky term to define. At the shallow end, it may just be hormone release and hedonism. But on the deeper end, especially to Aristotle and Stoic philosophers, it resembles fulfillment. For Aristotle, the word “eudaimonia” (often translated to happiness) requires the fulfillment of virtuous action, according to one’s nature and potential. Along the lines of this bar, the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca had some profound truth bombs on what happiness is and isn’t. Even how he approaches the definition of happiness, we quickly see a requirement far beyond warm and fuzzy feelings or hedonism. To Seneca,

“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself”

In this we see a definition of happiness way beyond dopamine release. True happiness is one of well-being and satisfaction having done the right thing, what virtue requires. Facing adversity and living up to one’s principles definitely has something to do with happiness as unhappiness is the negation of that prospect.

Moving away from the most unhappy, we arrive at perhaps a lesser version, but still unhappiness: overthinking and excessive headspace on the wrong thoughts. Contemplation is a blessing, but can also be a curse:

“… A mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future… Projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present… it is that foresight, the greatest blessing humanity has been given has been transformed into a curse. Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them they worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of blessings bring us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely.”

To contemplate, reflect, and evolve – the best version of ourselves is on offer in this unique ability, thus it truly is a blessing. When this ability runs wild with anxiety and we are distracted what we are called to do or be present in this moment, we sacrifice our opportunity to be our best selves in the present by worrying about the future (or guilting about the past). Related to this is the power of mindset. Unhappiness is not just lack of adversity or principles, it’s a lack of perspective and a mindset:

“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”

Conversely, we see his view that being present, grateful, and in the moment is key to true happiness.

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so, wants nothing.”

When we look at what happiness isn’t (no adversity/principles, not fulfilling our potentials, losing the present moment for anxiety of the future/past, lack of perspective, choosing a negative outlook), we can see what true happiness is (facing adversity with principles, fulfilling our potentials, keeping perspective, a mindset and decision to present and grateful in the present moment).

Each moment may not be enjoyable, but fulfillment and the choice of true happiness is always ours.

Image credit: Yair Haklai




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