From a philosophical standpoint there are several prominent theories of happiness each of which defines happiness in a slightly different way and offers a different approach to achieving it.
In addition to these major philosophical theories (which I’ll summarize below), there has also been a resurgence of interest by psychologists in happiness due, in part, to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology. This has led to quite a burst of popular books that have been published in recent years many of which are interesting and insightful.
As for some of the major philosophical theories:
Hedonism: The basic idea of this happiness theory is that pursuing pleasure is the best way to achieve happiness. But, philosophers like Epicurus who advocate this approach caution against misunderstanding what they mean by “pleasure.” For Epicurus, this does not mean the pursuit of “wine, women, and song.” Instead, it means the pursuit of those things which are necessary for happiness. For Epicurus that list is surprisingly small and simple: friendship, freedom, contemplation. For more on this approach you can read Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines.
Virtue Ethics: Similar in its promotion of things such as friendship and contemplation, Aristotle’s approach to happiness is one based on pursuing the virtues. But, again, like the word “pleasure” we may be tempted to misunderstand “virtue.” For Aristotle, the virtues are traits of character which will lead to a well-lived life. They are the mean between two extremes: either too much or too little of the virtue. Courage is a good example. It is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. For more on Aristotle’s approach to happiness you can read his Nichmachean Ethics.
Utilitarianism: This approach was advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and 19th centuries. For Bentham happiness was defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. While he thought these could be quantified he was quick to point out that he did not mean his approach to be confused with hedonism. Whereas hedonism is usually associated with the pursuit of personal pleasure, the utilitarians were always quick to point out that they were concerned with the happiness of everyone. Indeed, this is how the principle of utility was formulated by Mill who said we should act so that our actions create the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Though he disagreed with Bentham’s purely quantitative approach, he was also concerned with the happiness of others, not just with the self. John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is a good introduction to his ideas.
As I mentioned above, there is a rich literature concerning happiness that has developed over the past few decades. Among all the voices discussing this topic, the Dalai Lama is an interesting one to consider. He points out, much like Aristotle did, that happiness is the ultimate purpose of our lives as human beings. And, in spite of being a religious leader, in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, he advocates a secular approach to ethics to achieve this ultimate goal. His books on The Art of Happiness and The Art of Happiness at Work are insightful and well worth reading.
Other good works you may find interesting include:
Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator