It’s a simple question, but one that is notoriously difficult to answer. I usually start the first day of my “Christian Morality” class by asking my students to journal about what their vision of happiness is, and to begin to think critically about whether or not they are living out of that vision. It opens a can of worms that we spend the rest of the semester (and if I do my job well, the rest of their lives) critically examining.
In the academic field of ethics, whether philosophical or theological in nature, there are typically three main schools of thought: deontological (focusing on rules and duty), consequentialist (focusing on consequences) or eudaimonistic (focusing on happiness or well-being as the goal of the moral life). Each one has its own distinctive set of first principles, methods of moral reasoning, and underlying metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. For many of us engaged in theological ethics, and Catholic moral theology in particular, eudaimonistic ethics – derived from the classical philosophy of Aristotle and articulated most cogently by Thomas Aquinas – is considered to fit particularly well with the Gospels and a moral theology grounded in the practice of the virtues. The ultimate goal of this approach to moral theology is to critically examine which virtues, behaviors, and actions are most likely to lead to true and authentic happiness in this life and in the next.
The problem with happiness as it is understood in our culture is that it can too easily be tied to notions of worldly success, money, fame, and the fleeting pleasures exemplified in the old adage, “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.” A recent article in The Atlantic, “There’s More to Life than Being Happy, ” draws upon the insights of Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and holocaust survivor, and work from the field of positive psychology to claim that there is an important distinction between happiness and meaning. This distinction is central to understanding moral theology, because the term happiness in Christian ethics is better understood as the kind of deep-seated satisfaction with one’s life that can only come from living out of deeply held faith convictions and a clear sense of direction or purpose for one’s life.
On an experiential level, it is precisely the kind of seeking for the more fleeting kinds of happiness, and being honest about the lack of satisfaction that they bring, that can lead to a deeper questioning about what the purpose of a happy life is. Once a deeper appreciation for the kind of meaning is found that could sustain someone through a concentration camp, or through martyrdom, or the more mundane daily tasks of giving of one’s time and energies to meaningful work, to raising a family, to caring for friends and loved ones, then those more fleeting forms of happiness are seen in a different context. Success, money, sex, drugs, and rock&roll are not then automatically rejected, but placed into a wider sphere of meaning. If these natural goods of human existence – goods that God intended for us to enjoy – are part of living a meaningful existence, then they are serving their true purpose. If they are getting in the way, then we need to bring out the power tools of mindful and honest self-awareness, prayer, and sacrifice in order to let go of our attachments to these lesser goods.
George Vaillant, the latest custodian of the data accumulated from Harvard’s famous Grants Study, a longitudinal study that followed over 500 men for 68 years, concludes two lessons on meaningful happiness: (1) love is the single-most important factor in long-term well-being, and (2) the second most important factor entails finding ways of dealing with life’s struggles, worries, and anxieties in ways that do not push love away. These two conclusions probably seem obvious, but then if you honestly look at how often we miss these points, the truth becomes eminently simple and tremendously complex at the same time. If you look closely, I believe that one can see in Vaillant’s conclusions a more secular translation of Jesus’ own words:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:36-40).
These are wise words upon which to build the foundation of a healthy spirituality and morality, and challenging enough to spend a lifetime trying to live out. “Are You Happy?” turns out to be a bigger, and more important, question than we may have originally realized.