Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Everyone wants to be happy. At least, that seems to be the case. Even when people do things that will ultimately make them miserable, one could argue that they are still trying to make themselves happy. The problem is, we often look for happiness in all the wrong places (Isaiah 55:2, Jer. 2:13). But does God even care about our happiness? I mean, is it really that important? Is it just a nice additional quality that one might be lucky enough to experience if you have the right personality or set of circumstances? Or is happiness essential to life, and therefore essential to life with God? Is happiness a constitutive aspect of Christian faith and living?
What is Happiness?
We might begin to answer these questions by first asking, "What is happiness?" In contemporary pop-culture, happiness seems to be all about evanescent (quickly passing) and effervescent (vivacious or enthusiastic) feelings (Think Pharrell's popular song, "Happy"). It's a kind of inner peace, sense of contentment, or maybe even excitement, or a feeling of general well-being. One often hears people giving advice such as, "just do whatever makes you happy." or "I just want you to be happy."
Dr. Laurie Santos teaches a massively popular class at Yale on Psychology and Happiness. (See her podcast, The Happiness Lab). She brings scientific research to bear upon the question and pursuit of happiness. No doubt, the popularity of this course is due to this universal human longing. Dr. Jennifer Frey, a Catholic Philosopher at the University of South Carolina has offered an important critique of Santos work, saying that it reduces happiness to a collection of life-hacks. In other words, to experience happiness we just need to figure out ways to trick our brains into producing happiness vibes, so to speak. Frey finds a better analysis in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, who points us to God as the true source. Thomas writes,
"It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is that perfect good which entirely satisfies one’s desire; otherwise it would not be the ultimate end, if something yet remained to be desired... This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone, because every creature has only participated goodness. Therefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of the Psalms (102:5): “Who alone satisfies your desire with good things.” Therefore, God alone constitutes man’s happiness.” (Summa Theologica Part 2. Q.1. Article 8)
Those who seek God, and the things God loves, for God's sake, can know true happiness. We don’t get happiness by aiming at it, but as by product of worthy pursuits and commitments. The central commitment being the pursuit of God. Most graduation speeches and award show acceptance speeches are not where we find this kind of wisdom for well-being.
It's not that genuine happiness would exclude the things that Santos, or the well-meaning commencement speaker, would highlight, but some important things are missing from this understanding of happiness. Namely, goodness, and God. The contemporary understanding and use of the word "happiness" becomes too shallow to be a life-goal, and empty of any specific content (What sorts of things ought to make us happy?).
For ancient Greeks, happiness is virtue. The happy life must be a virtuous life. Vice (or a vicious life) will only bring misery in the end. A virtue is an excellence, of character or skill, that enables a created being to operate, or function, properly according to its nature (according to God's design and purpose). This proper functioning will lead to flourishing, thriving, and overall well-being. This is "happiness" in the classical sense. The philosophers talked of eudaimonia (Gk: lit. good spirit). This word, often translated as "happiness," means much more than good feelings. It's a massive concept that includes notions of blessedness, flourishing, well-fare, thriving, prosperity, and over-all, holistic well-being. For Aristotle, this kind of happiness is connected with arete (virtue) and phronesis (practical wisdom). In other words, human happiness is inseparable from human goodness and wisdom. You can't be happy if you are evil or foolish. And you can't be happy if you don't also pursue being good and wise. Virtues are dispositions to act well. And vices are dispositions to act foolishly. Aristotle taught that we should cultivate habits that will lead to consistent dispositions to act well (virtue), and that this would serve our happiness. (See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics). The ancient Romans added prosperity and divine favor to the mix. They believed that one must be relatively good, prosperous, and seek the blessing of the gods in order to be happy. For Christians, however, happiness can only be found in God, the true fount of happiness. For Christians, God is the truly happy One, who gives His happiness to His people.
Happiness in the Bible
In the Bible, we can find references to happiness in passages like Psalm 1 and Matthew 5. Each one uses the word "blessed," The Hebrew word in Ps 1 is asher/ashrei. The Greek word in Matt 5 is makarios. Both of these words may be translated as "happy." Indeed, the translation, "blessed," is part of what happiness means in the Bible. These words include the idea of being supremely blessed, fortunate, well-off, and flourishing. (The words beatitude, or beatific, come from the Latin word for happy). So, we read in Scripture,
Psalm 1:1-2 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
And in Matthew 5:3-10
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
There are several other passages that use the blessed language (especially in the Psalms, such as 2:12; 23:1; 106:3; 119:1). What such passages show us is that God is interested in human happiness. And that is good news, since, "“It is a certainty that all people want to be happy,” (St. Augustine, City of God). This happiness is found in God alone, as the source, and accompanies virtues such as faith, hope, humility, obedience, godliness and love directed to God. And the happiness that comes from God is far better than the happiness offered by contemporary culture. It is found only in God, and it satisfies the soul for eternity. It's associated with fruitfulness, strength, the kingdom of God, and ultimately, the vision of God. Augustine writes, in his Confessions, “You are the happiness that everyone desires, the only happiness.”
So, it's important to understand that "happiness" both in the ancient world and in the Bible does not mean exactly the same thing as its often taken to mean today. It is richer, fuller, deeper, and eternal.
Happiness in Theology
Christian theologians, most notably, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, pick up the ancient philosophical notions of eudaimonia/happiness and reflect on them theologically. In short, they agree with Aristotle that true, Christian, Biblical happiness is connected with goodness/virtue and wisdom. What they add to the Hellenistic philosophers is that the triune God is the source of all goodness and wisdom, and therefore, the source of all happiness. One cannot be happy without God. Not in any real, true, and lasting sense anyway.
Augustine and Thomas affirm the human desire, and need, for happiness. They assert that it includes both inner (soul/mind) and outer (physical) goods. They also affirm that the pursuit of happiness is important and necessary for a worthwhile human life. And, most important of all, they assert that this happiness of soul and body can actually be found. It is found in the One God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). If one seeks to enjoy God for all God's worth, and to love God above all things, and to love others and self for God's sake, then one can know true and lasting happiness.
They are also quick to add that a perfect experience of this happiness can only be found in the eschaton; that is, heaven, or the new creation, where one experiences the "Beatific vision" of God, and all things are healed. They recognize that physical ailments, as well as other difficult, tragic, or sad circumstances can reduce our ability to experience happiness in this life. Yet, even though perfect happiness is not found in this life, it is both promised in the next life (which encourages perseverance in faith), and foretasted, in varied measures, in our present life through the Holy Spirit, who brings us life and joy and peace (See Rom. 14:17, 15:13; 1 Thess. 1:6). There can still be moments of genuine happiness in God despite the brokenness of present life (See John 16:33; 1 Peter 1:8). Therefore, one can expect to experience happiness in God even now. Indeed, many of the "beatitudes" in Matthew 5 address people in positions of loss/lack who nonetheless hope in God. In that hope they/we find a true measure of blessed-ness, or, happiness. One can expect this because God is the source of all happiness, because God is both for us and good for us, and because salvation, for Augustine, is profoundly therapeutic,. By therapeutic I mean that salvation brings healing to human souls (and eventually to human bodies in the Resurrection) by restoring the divine image in us. As the Image of God is restored, our capacity for knowing God's own happiness is restored in us as well. Thus, salvation is not merely about forgiveness of sins (though that is also good news!). It is also about restoring human persons.
As God restores us in His image, he restores us in holiness and goodness. We can conclude that there is no happiness apart from holiness and goodness. This is important to recognize, because modern notions of happiness often separate it from goodness. One might even be encouraged to pursue their happiness apart from, or in opposition to, goodness. Happiness is seen as more important than goodness. Christians, alternatively, often buy into this and think that if the choice is between happiness and goodness, we should choose goodness, and leave happiness to the wayside. But Christianity understands happiness and goodness as integrally linked together. Both are found together in, and from, God (or being in union with God). Though our goodness can never be the basis of our happiness (we’re never that good), and our happiness must be in God (the giver of grace and love), pursuing goodness certainly serves our happiness. Whereas sin only serves our misery. We have to seek holiness and happiness in God at the same time. If we seek only holiness, we may improve and risk pride, or we may fail, grow weary, and give up. We have to seek the supreme happiness, which is in communion with God (through Christ, by the Spirit). That’s what makes the pursuit of holiness worthwhile -- that it serves our sense of union with God, and also, our happiness.
Doctrine is meant for Happiness
Dr. Ellen Charry (God and the Art of Happiness, and By the renewing of Your Minds) argues that classical Christian doctrine seeks to help believers flourish by knowing and loving God. Goodness and happiness should result from living into these doctrines. This is the “good life” that Christianity offers. Theology should foster human dignity and excellence in action, affection, and self-appraisal. Good Christian doctrine, then, is “aretogenic” (virtue producing), sapiential (wisdom producing), and finally, “asheristic” (blessedness/happiness producing). Thus, academic and practical theology must always go together for it to be truly “Christian” theology. Because doctrine helps us understand that God is both good to us and good for us, doctrine is inherently salutary, and encourages our happiness.
Happiness in times of Pandemic
As many face illness, loss, anxieties, fears, and trouble of all kinds, it can be important to remember that God is still interested in our happiness. We might think God is only interested in our faithful obedience, or our perseverance. That is certainly true. But God does not separate our obedience from our happiness in Him. God wants our joy to be full, as Jesus says in John 15:11, "These things I have spoken to you,that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." This may or may not include those evanescent and effervescent feelings that all people desire. I think it will include such feelings some of the time. But in times such as these, amidst a global Coronavirus pandemic, it may not come easy, or without many returns to rest and trust in God.
As we walk through these trying times, let's be reminded, and gently remind our people, that God is with them as ever before. And that in His presence, there is blessedness and joy to be had (Ps. 16:11). This will feel very hard to accept in some cases. And I'm not saying we should rush to escape feelings of sadness or grief. Nor should we refuse the need to lament deeply. Rather, this is meant only to remind us, as we work through grief, sadness, pain and loss, that we can continue to hope in the Lord. That the Lord does intend to make us glad in Him forever. And that He is interested in nurturing our ability to share His happiness, even now. Even if it's on the other side of grief.
O heavenly Father,who has filled the world with beauty:
Open our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works;
that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve
thee with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all
things were made,thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP)
O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal, that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate, that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen. (BCP)