How to be happy

July 8th, 2020

The Irish are happier than we Americans. Big deal, you might be thinking. Of course they are! Everybody knows they’re a laugh a minute.

But the Canadians, the Germans and the Finns are happier than us, too. The Finns rank number one. The people of permafrost, reindeer and fish pie, for crying out loud!

We come in at a lowly number 19. And according to the annual World Happiness Report the U.S. has been slipping for nearly a decade.

This country was built on the premise that a government is legitimate only if it protects each individual’s right to pursue happiness (along with life and liberty). In other words, from our national beginnings we Americans said that having the liberty to pursue happiness is central to who and what we are as human beings.

Granted, we only claim the right to pursue happiness. Not to attain it. But really, if more and more people self-report that this life-defining pursuit has become fruitless, then we have to admit that there’s a problem.

Lots of ink has been spilled detailing the toxicity of white supremacy, the cruel failures of late capitalism and the ineptitude or corruption of political leaders. In fact, some of that ink has been mine.

But in this context I’m going to talk about a spiritual affliction that distorts the individual soul and erodes our common life. Namely, the so-called happiness that many people devote themselves to pursuing is not really happiness at all.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’ll start by saying that many people define happiness as getting what they want. In other words, for them happiness is pleasure or gratification. Conversely, unhappiness is pain, frustration or disappointment. This school of thought is called hedonism (derived from the Greek word for pleasure, hedonia).

The philosopher Plato pointed out a sad contradiction about hedonism. A life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure becomes a life defined by pain. Gratification is about removing the pain of hunger or thirst or the like.

You have to be in pain to feel relief. But this contentment passes quickly. Life becomes normal. Boring, even. And so, perversely, you want the pain in order to experience relief. Don’t believe me? Just ask a recovering addict or an alcoholic. They’ll be glad to tell you how miserable this can become.

Hedonism also debases our common life precisely because it is self-centered. Any restriction on my pursuit of pleasure based on what other people want or need imposes upon my liberty.

I still want what I want. Your wants or needs are your problem. This is why some people are protesting wearing masks even in this time of pandemic. Protecting others from infection — especially strangers — is irrelevant to their sense of life’s meaning and purpose. Forcing them to do so, in their view, robs them of their perceived liberty. Strictly speaking, they have confused liberty with license.

In contrast to hedonism, there is a long tradition that defines happiness as becoming the fully human person we were created to be. The Greek word that this school of thought used for happiness is eudaimonia. Actually that word is better translated as well-being. Or even, being well. Achieving excellence at being a person. Moral philosophers and theologians call that kind of excellence virtue.

I won’t go into detail about these virtues here, but it is crucial to note that a virtuous life cannot be separated from the idea of pursuing the common good.

Wisdom, for example, is excellence at navigating life in community. A courageous person faces danger to preserve the common good. And tellingly, the philosopher Aristotle named friendship — the bond of affection at the very foundation of all authentic communities — as one of the chief virtues.

A life like this is inherently worth living. That’s because we live for the sake of the love we give each other. Even under dreary circumstances — and especially in hard and perilous times — loving each other makes life meaningful.

As it turns out, Jesus taught us how to be happy: love your neighbor as yourself. Not because of what your neighbor does or says. But because that’s just who you are. You are always free to do that. And no one can rob you of the freedom to love.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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