My students reveal something that the pre-Columbian Aztecs knew well.
You should stop searching for happiness because that’s not really what you want.
We don’t plan our lives around elevated emotional states.
What we want are worthwhile lives and if we have to make sacrifices for that then so much the worse for ‘happiness’.
The Aztecs – who lived in modern-day Mexico – have long been overlooked in the ‘West’ (a term that Latin American philosophers dispute – hence my quote marks).
When I teach my class the only thing students tend to know about the Aztecs is that they engaged in human sacrifice.
But before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors the Aztecs had a philosophically rich culture with people they called ‘philosophers’ and their specious counterparts the ‘sophists’.
We have volumes and volumes of Aztec thought recorded by Christian clergymen in codices.
Some of the philosophic work is in poetic form – some is presented as a series of exhortations and some even in dialogue form.
These points invite comparisons with the philosophers of classical Greek antiquity – especially Plato and Aristotle.
These men argued that happiness comes naturally when we cultivate qualities such as self-discipline or courage.
Of course different things make different people happy.
But Aristotle believed that the universality of ‘reason’ was the key to a sort of objective definition of happiness – when it was supported by the virtues of our character.
Like the Greeks the Aztecs were interested in how to lead a good life.
But unlike Aristotle they did not start with the human ability to reason.
Rather they looked outward – to our circumstances on Earth.