We were made to be happy. Happiness is the desire and ultimate goal of every human heart. In practical terms a good definition of happiness might read, the anticipation or enjoyment of those things we perceive to be good. Few people would disagree with the first part of that statement. The tough part comes at the end, deciding what is truly good. Vibrant health is undoubtedly good, but can the same be said of a drug like heroin that provides a momentary euphoria, but destroys one in the end? Sometimes even a legitimate pleasure like alcohol can become harmful if carried to excess, thus it is necessary to distinguish between pleasure and happiness.
At best pleasure is a limited, and temporal, good. Happiness knows no such boundaries. We all have an insatiable capacity for it. Health and pleasure are to the body what happiness is to the soul. While pleasure may certainly lend itself to happiness, it cannot entirely replace it.
Happiness has a deeper spiritual dimension than those pleasures rooted in the body and the psyche. And until we acknowledge the spiritual side of our nature real happiness is bound to escape our grasp. The Catholic Catechism speaks of, “our vocation to beatitude,” another word for happiness, as a desire which is of divine origin and placed in the human heart in order to draw man to the One alone who can fulfill it. (Catechism #1718) It would seem that God has placed an automatic homing device in every human heart, namely this desire for happiness which leads one full circle, and back to him. That is why G.K. Chesterton could say, “every man standing in the doorway of a brothel is searching for God,” perhaps not consciously but unknowingly. If so, it might help to understand how that divine homing device is intended to work.
God made us to be happy. To that end he gave us two sets of appetites: a spiritual set for the soul and physical appetites for the body. The bodily appetites find their fulfillment in pleasure but, in order to be truly happy, the spiritual appetites must also be fulfilled. To starve the soul while feeding only the body is a recipe for unhappiness. So what are these spiritual appetites? The soul desires four things above all else: knowledge, order, freedom and love. Knowledge and order appeal to the mind whereas freedom and love speak directly to the heart. Together these four virtues enable one to experience a happiness that extends far beyond the enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.
Knowledge is apprehending the truth of things. Knowledge is truly power because it allows us to order the things around us and to discern truth from falsehood. But strange as it seems, there are people who would rather choose not to know, because knowing also incurs responsibility. They live by the old adage, “ignorance is bliss,” but is being unaware truly the same thing as happiness? Only in the sense that a young boy is perfectly happy with candy, because he knows nothing about girls. But once he has grown old enough to appreciate the opposite sex candy may no longer satisfy him. St. Irenaeus once remarked, “The glory of God is man fully alive,” and to be “fully” alive means to be vigorously and actively growing in mind and body. The Bible also affirms this dynamic, “and Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and men.” (Lk. 2:52) Knowledge is central to the process of growth which defines our humanity, even as it did for the God-Man. Therefore ignorance should never be considered as a kind of happiness any more than eating sawdust might be considered a remedy for staving off hunger.
The knowing mind naturally wants to impose order, that is to “organize” its surroundings, just as a gardener plants his crops in straight, even rows. But good order assumes that one possesses the requisite knowledge to order things wisely. Therefore to be ignorant of pertinent truths is to be subjected to chaos, which makes peace of mind impossible. Why else do people become frantic when they lose their keys? Peace of mind is a fundamental component of happiness ─ and so good parents want to know who their teenage daughter is going out with and, furthermore, they lay down certain rules for dating.
But true happiness goes beyond mere peace of mind. For it is in the heart where happiness is most deeply experienced. Like the mind, the heart is driven by two basic appetites or desires which are essential to our happiness. Those two appetites are called freedom and love. But while knowledge and order are fairly straightforward concepts, freedom and love cover a much wider latitude of expression. They have been defined a hundred different ways. Some interpretations have led to happiness and others to great unhappiness. If driven by the pleasure instinct rather than by reason, freedom and love can become tyrannical cravings that undermine the very happiness they are meant to fulfill.
Many modern people tend to be very unhappy because the present culture has promoted a false understanding of both freedom and love. Let us begin with freedom. Freedom today has been framed as a bottomless reservoir of rights to which every individual is automatically entitled. The ethic of rugged individualism has always been a strong undercurrent in American culture, but since the 1960s the new “autonomous self” has come to reflect something more radical. “Nobody else has the right to tell me what I may or may not do, and certainly not to decide what is right or wrong. The only judge of my actions is me.” Taken to its logical conclusion such widespread attitudes must eventually lead to social anarchy.
We are already getting uncomfortably close. Today an employee in a typical retail store is told never to challenge anyone for shoplifting, even if that employee has personally witnessed the theft, for fear of being sued by the shoplifter! I am not making this up. Stopping a shoplifter might be considered impugning his character because, in his own mind, such behavior might not be considered stealing. Of course the cost of such theft, euphemistically termed “shrinkage,” gets passed on to everyone else in the form of higher prices. This “tyranny of relativism” is now routinely justified as “freedom.”
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen commented on this phenomenon of false freedom decades ago, long before shoplifters were being issued automatic “get out of jail free” cards. He observed that the liberal doctrine of freedom reduces freedom to a physical, rather than a moral power. Freedom has come to be synonymous with doing whatever you please, whether good or evil, or believing whatever you please, whether true or false. Sheen then concluded that this ends up in the exaltation and glorification of the ego. Freedom (properly understood) operates within the law of our nature, not outside it. “Try to be so progressive,” he said, “as to draw a giraffe with a short neck, or a triangle with four sides, and see where you end up!”
In a similar vein, the virtue of love has been widely interpreted by the modern world as the right to unrestricted sexual intimacy, even among adolescents, a gross distortion grounded solely in the “pleasure principle.” But if love is pleasure and no more then it cannot produce true happiness because pleasure cannot satisfy the soul, only the body. Try to find happiness the way it is advertised on the TV screen and you will be greatly disappointed. Fulton Sheen noted the problem is that people tend to look for happiness in all the wrong places. The frenetic pursuit of money, sex, or power in the mistaken belief that these can make one happy becomes a dead end. In truth, one’s happiness is totally dependent on one’s capacity to love. Authentic love incorporates knowledge, order, and freedom into itself because it represents the culmination of all these desires and more.
The late Pope John Paul II maintained that love falls into the domain of moral order, “since love is a matter of truth in the understanding and freedom in the will.” He then adds, “It is now the moment to examine love between man and woman as virtue.” The pope elaborates on the meaning of this virtue. “Love is essentially the will to belong to the other… especially expressed in the desire of the good for the person loved.” (Love and Responsibility) Love always seeks the good of the other, regardless of how selfishly it may be portrayed on the silver screen.
Widespread confusion about the true meaning of love is hardly surprising in such a culture as ours. Contemporary man has lost sight of that sharp distinction between pleasure and happiness. In his media-saturated mental state pleasure is automatically assumed to bring one happiness. The same pope corrected this fallacy by observing, “Pleasure is neither the sole good nor the essential goal of human action. To wish one’s neighbor the “greatest pleasure” is not at all equivalent to wishing his good.” Nonetheless, pleasure is a powerful motivator. Wealth, fame, (physical) beauty, and power which hold out the promise of pleasure can easily divert the pursuit of authentic knowledge, order, freedom, and love. But it is these last four things, not the former, that deliver true happiness.
So why are we so easily swayed by pleasure? Because, even within the bosom of our families, life is often filled with disappointment, worry, anxiety, and frustration. And the more that happiness appears to elude us the more inclined we are to seek comfort in pleasure. Pleasure is the human default setting when real happiness seems to be out of reach. Not that pleasure is intrinsically evil or bad, but it can only lead one toward happiness when it is taken unselfishly. True love demands generosity towards others, and generosity is not possible until we learn to be forgetful of the self. St. Francis of Assisi framed it perfectly when he prayed, “…for it is in giving that we receive.” Pleasure is not to self-medicate our wounded egos, it is meant to be dispensed in a spirit of generosity. The fundamental reason that alcoholics and drug addicts are unhappy is because they become overly absorbed in their own mind and problems. The substance abuse is an effect, not the root cause, of those problems. Pleasure may well contribute to one’s happiness, like seasoning on a steak, but it makes a poor substitute as the main course.
St. Thomas Aquinas calls happiness, “the perfect good which satisfies all human desires.” By adding the qualification of perfect good he raises the spiritual bar significantly, pointing us toward a kind of happiness that can only be fully achieved in the next life. He does not deny that there is such a thing as temporal happiness, only that it can never be fully perfected here and now. His point seems to be that it is foolish to look for such perfect happiness in this life; a sharp contrast with the false message that modern advertising is constantly drumming into our all too receptive brains.
Aquinas does raise a fascinating point about the nature of happiness and the human person which is that we cannot get too much of it. Unlike the bodily appetites which have definite limits (how much cotton candy could you stand to eat?), our spiritual appetite for happiness becomes an unquenchable thirst for MORE. Happiness is the supreme human appetite that knows no limits, not through any defect of our own but by God’s own design.
You may ask why God would give any finite creature an appetite of infinite capacity? The answer is really quite simple, because such an appetite can then be satisfied only by an infinite being. Anything less (like pleasure) will always leave us wanting for more. There are many good things that exist but only one is perfect, which is God himself. That is why Aquinas sagaciously defines happiness as “the perfect good,” because such a perfect good can only mean God. So it is God alone who can satisfy every human desire, meaning that our insatiable appetite for happiness is not meant to be frustrated but rather fulfilled by the One who made them in the first place. Only love can fill that yawning cavity and God is the perfection of all love. Augustine said it best, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”
We may be reasonably happy in the present moment because God gave every human being those four basic appetites meant to provide for our happiness: knowledge, order, freedom, and, most importantly, love. Not surprisingly these four things are also attributes of God himself, so our search for happiness should be understood as a search for God. Meanwhile the various other pleasures he gives us in transit can themselves become vital clues to his whereabouts, if we use them wisely. By doing so, one can discover real happiness, even in the greatest difficulties. Notice how often the virtuous person also appears to be happy in spite of his troubles. This phenomenon is alluded to in the very first Psalm:
“Happy is the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked, nor walks in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of the insolent; But delights in the law of the Lord, and meditates on his law day and night.
He is like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in due season; whose leaves never wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Ps. 1:1-3)
The happiest human beings on the planet are invariably children. Happiness, which is second nature to children, too often becomes the elusive “holy grail” for adults. And it’s not that children don’t have their pains and anxieties. But the problems of childhood, real as they may be, do not seem to entirely smother that innate happiness and sparkling laughter which is their great gift to us all. For that reason Christ extolled children when he commanded, “Do not hinder them, for such belong to the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mk. 10:14-15) In their trust and innocence children, in fact, serve as the highest models of true happiness.
Perhaps genuine happiness is so elusive in the adult world because we too often operate under the mistaken assumption that happiness simply means avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. If it feels good, do it; if it hurts, avoid it at all cost. But even assuming (unrealistically) that on could live one’s entire life avoiding pain and indulging in every possible pleasure, would such a person be truly happy? Imagine being locked in an amusement park for months with no escape. One would quickly develop an aversion to hot doge and cotton candy, I daresay.
The world cannot give us happiness in the abundant way that God provides it. He began by giving us knowledge of the truth, through the very person of his only Son who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (Jn. 14:6) Truth, as embodied in Christ, therefore guides us to order our lives in true freedom, which ultimately leads one to the experience of love. Love, as it were, is the culmination of every other virtue and desire, not only those found in the soul but those of the body as well.
But love is always essentially an act of giving even more than receiving. It is the total gift of self and, as such, is a reflection of the God who is Love. (1Jn. 4:16) That is why fidelity is the divine hallmark of marriage, because faithful monogamous love is a sign of total gift of the self to the other. Of course, the ultimate “Other” is God who gives himself totally to each one of us. Perfect happiness means to be with and to know him eternally. A human spouse is for a lifetime, the divine spouse will be ours forever. St. Thomas Aquinas sums up this reality beautifully in three short words. “God alone satisfies.”
Love therefore works on many different levels. It is both a means to attaining happiness and yet paradoxically it is also the sum and summit of our happiness. Thus St. Paul can say, “So faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor. 13:13)
So what is happiness in its fullest sense? The Blessed Author of happiness himself came down from heaven to show, and not merely tell, us its true meaning. What he manifested, not only in words but in his own life, was the Christian paradox, summarized in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, they will obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:3-10)
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.