"Happiness is the exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope."
That quote is usually attributed to Aristotle, although there's some debate over whether or not that's what he actually wrote. I don't think it matters, because the words are perfect. It's certainly what I want. It's what happiness is for me.
But what exactly does it mean? What are "vital powers?" We all know what the words themselves mean. Vital is something essential. The absence of it diminishes the whole. It is integral. And powers are gifts, right? Talents, skills. It refers to the talent that is part of all of us, whether it's a great big imagination or an eye for visual composition, or the ability to throw a bunch of ingredients into a pan and pull out something not only edible but delicious.
We all have something that is part of us, something that we love to do and are good at. Something that fulfills that need inside of us. Something that we fear losing because the loss of it would make us someone else entirely. We all have vital powers.
For me it's writing. I love it like almost nothing else. I don't know who I would be without it, and it's not because I'm a workaholic. I'm a workaholic because of my love, because of my need. Because even on the worst days a turn of phrase, a trick of rhythm or a lovely alliteration can thrill me, fill me. (Props to Poe, for that last bit there. :D)
And there are bad days. There are rejections, and setbacks, and stories that I can never seem to get right. But if that's the price I have to pay to do something that I love? Well, I'll consider it a happiness tax and move on, probably after a small pity party. After all, if you don't feel the bad stuff, you can't really feel the good stuff, right?
I don't let the pity party last any longer than it has to, though. I don't want to be one of those people who ignores all the good stuff in their lives because they're too busy complaining about the bad stuff. It hurts, we all know it, but you can't let it eat up your life.
And I think that's where the "in a life affording them scope" part comes in. Because it's all about perspective. About looking back on your accomplishments and failures and realizing that they're all the same thing. They're all a part of life. And life is the context which defines what we do, which lends it meaning and significance. An interesting loop, isn't it? What we do defines our lives and is in turn defined by it. It's that Escher sketch where one hand is drawing the hand that's drawing it.
The word "scope" comes from the Italian "scopo," from the Greek "skopos." (I know there are some linguists out there, so if I've got that wrong feel free to let me know! :D) It means a target, a goal, something to shoot for, to achieve in life. And life is, by definition, not finished until it's... Well, finished. We can't judge our own scope, because we can't see the end and so can't take it as a whole. We're missing context.
So, translated into modern lingo, the quote might read something like "Happiness is the use of our inherent talents, in the pursuit of excellence, in a setting that gives them meaning."
Sounds good to me.
It doesn't imply success, because that's not the point. Happiness lies in the endeavor itself, in the exercise of those vital powers. Let your life provide the scope. Don't define yourself by how often you win or lose. Define yourself by how often you try.