By: Summer Mengarelli
Imagine you are visiting a temple dedicated to American ideals. You walk through a vast hall, heels clicking on the cold marble floor as you pass shrines to the simpler pleasures of Football, Beer, and Celebrity Gossip. As you journey deeper into the temple, the shrines become larger and more ornate, the names of the deities scrawled above them: Racism, The Patriarchy, Colonialism. At the end of the hall you approach the center shrine; flanked on either side by Capitalism and Western Standards of Education and adorned in golden dollar signs, SUCCESS looms down at you.
Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen proposed in the 1980s a new set of standards, called the capability approach. Rather than evaluating success by the usual means — access and ability to multiply resources — Sen’s approach focuses on the individual’s capabilities to achieve the type of life they have reason to value. Thus, someone may not have the capability to achieve financial security, but if within the context of their social network, personal health, environment, and other factors, they are able to develop meaningful relationships and feel fulfilled in their daily lived experience, they have achieved a life well lived.
Sen’s approach has been expanded since its inception, with thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum providing concrete lists of human capabilities necessary for success and living well. However, Sen developed his standards with an emphasis on freedom — the individual freedom to measure success separate from societal standards of education, health, and prosperity. This is the kind of liberty I felt when I spent a chunk of my life savings to go to Spain for a semester: it was not the wisest decision financially, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It is the freedom you felt when you switched your major from a field you were told would insure a job after graduation to a field that genuinely excites and interests you. It is the exhilarating feeling of living well even if you choose the school or career path that wasn’t what your parents laid out for you, but is what is necessary for you to love being alive.
Another, and much more broadly-known, approach to success was developed by Aristotle and detailed in his “Nicomachean Ethics.” Aristotle’s ethics — principles of living — are teleological, meaning that they are based around the idea that every being has an ultimate purpose and highest good, its telos. The human telos is eudaimonia, a Greek word traditionally translated to “happiness,” but which more accurately connotes “human flourishing.” In this framework, the highest good is not an emotion or state of being, but rather an activity, a living. All the usual goals — health, wealth, approval, etc. — are not desirable in themselves but only inasmuch as they promote flourishing as the highest end.
Aristotle reasoned that if eudaimonia is the uniquely human telos, then it must have something to do with being human, and what sets humans apart from other beasts is the human ability to reason and rationalize. Therefore, the work required of us to flourish is the cultivation of virtuous living. In particular, Aristotle highlights courage, generosity, and justice as virtues that should be fostered intentionally. Finally, he adds that some goods, such as friendship, honor, and pleasure, are good in themselves but also contribute to eudaimonia.
Neither Sen’s nor Aristotle’s concepts of living well are without flaws; however, they can help to broaden our ideas on what it means to succeed. Both point to what we all recognize when we develop a new friendship or deepen an old one; when we perform a thankless act of generosity; when we exalt in the divine joy of reading truthful poetry or creating sincere art; or maybe even when we live an experience that is wholly selfish, merely pleasurable, financially unwise.
Encounters that are materially worthless, yet shape our beings and construct a life of beauty through their culmination, hint exuberantly and gently that there is so much more to living well than the fleeting happiness that comes with financial prosperity. They testify that there is abundant wealth outside the temple to Financial Success. These immaterial graces proclaim that success is not a life of security in material wealth but a life of rich experiences, honest relationships, giving of oneself, creating, loving, flourishing.