Are you Happy?

When my Elder son was very small, and was trying to figure out facial expressions, he would ask me, or my husband, or the lady at the grocery store, “Are you ‘appy?”

He was missing his h’s for a little while.

Sometimes my husband and I will still tease each other with that. He’ll see me looking pensive and ask “are you ‘appy?”

It’s a sweet question, and it always makes me smile, for the warm memories of my son at such a young age. But sometimes I wonder if, rather than asking people if they’re happy, we shouldn’t ask them, “are you grateful?” Because joy, or ‘appiness, I am convinced, comes from a capacity to actually see the good things in one’s life, and acknowledge them as good, and then be thankful.

Gratitude that one is employed; gratitude that one can walk across a room, unassisted. Gratitude for the senses. Gratitude for love, where we find it.

Are you ‘appy?

The question can be deceptive; it seems simple, but becomes complicated when one is forced to consider it, head-on.

In a very interesting look back at 1968 (thanks to reader Debbie L!) two Catholic sisters (by their habits I would guess they are Adrian Dominicans) — Sister Marie Arné and Sister Mary Campion of St. Denis Parish in Chicago — participated in a documentary in which they were given a microphone and told to wade out into the crowds of Chicago to ask people (who, perhaps would feel less threatened by a nun with a mic) the simple/complex question, “Are you happy?”

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A good question. Are you happy? If you are, why? And if you are not, what might make you happy? And how much of what you are feeling — happy, or unhappy — is related to how aware you are of the blessings you have in your life.

Or do you feel you have no blessings, at all?

Coming at happiness from other perspectives, don’t miss Marcia Morrissey writing on Walnuts and Rice and how they relate to your every day, and Joseph Susanka’s look at what guilt and death have in common and what makes us to rise, again.

Life can be hard, disappointing, full of struggles. But Abraham Lincoln supposedly said that most folks are “as happy as they make up their minds to be” and to an extent, I endorse that.

A true awareness of the good things in your life however small, and a sincere gratitude for those good things — and the other awareness, of what you can and cannot change — it all plays into the happiness equation. It all makes a difference.

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  • Katherine

    Two years ago I went for a routine mammogram and a mass was found. I was whisked into another room for a deeper evaluation, and told to wait for the doctor.

    As I lay waiting for the doctor I mentally listed out all the things I had to be grateful for, the nurses and their education, the doctor and her education, Albert Einstein and the miracles of his thinking that lead to the wonderful medical devices that could look into my body and see if something had gone horribly wrong.

    When the doctor got to me I was calm and composed and she was surprised to find me so. I told her I was cultivating an attitude of gratitude.

    It really is the secret of happiness.


  • Jenny

    I think that people who spend a lot of time examining whether or not they are happy are undermining their own happiness.

    It is like the woman from a few months ago in the NYTimes? that decided to “improve” her marriage and examine how it was working and nearly destroyed it in the process. I think happiness is a lot like that.

    When you spend a lot of time worrying about your own happiness, you become so self involved that the quality eludes you.

  • Anne

    Oh! The Adrian Dominicans! That’s who taught me in grade school. Wonderful, wonderful women.

  • Beverly Babcock

    Yes, I’m in agreement with Katherine. Bringing gratitude into your life is the most important thing…through that simple act, we learn what happiness truly is. I don’t always write in my gratitude journal, but usually at the end of each day, I think about those things for which I am grateful, and from that much happiness grows!

  • Max Lindenman

    I can’t attribute this properly, but recently some researcher published a theory, backed by a study, on baseline happiness. The general idea, as I understand it, is that most people hover somewhere between jumping for joy and slashing their wrists. Upticks or downturns in fortune change our mood only temporarily. Within a short time after the lottery check has cleared, or after our stump has healed, we’re more or less back to our old “meh” selves.

    There’s something in this, I think. Just this morning, I clicked on over to and noted that all the “Real Life” essays were written in a confident, sassy tone by lesbians or mothers of autistic kids. This threw me into a tiny fit of despair. “Why, Lord,” I wondered, “am I not a confident, sassy lesbian with autistic kids? Scoring big in the world of letters would be so much easier if I were.”

    Shortly afterward, for reasons I already forget, I began re-reading “Notes of a Native Son,” the essay in which James Baldwin writes of his initiation into the complexities of American racial inequality. As a starting point, Baldwin takes the funeral of his paranoid, pre-millenialist father. Just then, I received an e-mail addressed to the entire bullpen of Patheos’ entire Catholic portal. Inside was a link to an episode of In the Arena, in which Elizabeth talks about her own pre-millenialist mother. (I am optimistic that she had more on the ball generally than the late Reverend Baldwin.) Tt struck me as jolly good fortune that nobody who raised me was a pre-millenialist, and with that, I quit wanting to be a sassy lesbian mother of an autistic kid.

    Now, I’m back at “Go,” rolling the dice once more.

  • Sal

    Oh, the photo! So sweet- what a beautiful boy…
    I do love hearing about other’s family sayings.

    I think the question isn’t “Am I happy?” but
    “Am I being, to the best of my ability co-operating with grace, good?”
    A mouthful, but more truthful.

  • Katherine


    Oi! If I performed your “mouthful” life would be much better, but my sins are every before me…


  • Sr. Mary Catharine

    “I answer that, It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Ps. 102:5: “Who satisfieth thy desire with good things.” Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”
    IIa-IIae, 2, 8 St. Thomas Aquinas.

    Yes, the question can and should be asked. We ask this question at every stage of formation when voting for new sisters. So, if the answer is “yes” (which it usually is!) we ask “Why? What is the source of your happiness!”

    I am very happy over chocolate but it is a fleeting happiness. But God alone is the source of perpetual happiness even when we are in sorrow.

    1968! The year I was born!

  • Brandy M Miller

    Gratitude is the key to unlocking the treasury of God’s graces. This came to me once, during a silent retreat, at a moment when I was NOT feeling grateful for anything at that moment and was deeply unhappy with EVERYTHING in my life. That weekend, I made a commitment to begin to practice gratitude by saying thank you for everything that came my way in life, no matter how ugly it seemed on the surface, and to start always with the assumption that what is going on is for my good and God’s glory. I am a happier person than I have ever been before that retreat, and even when things go wrong I do not get troubled by it like I used to. I just remind myself to thank God for it, and to remember that this is God’s love working in my life.

  • Nan

    I am also in agreement with Katherine; gratitude really is the secret of happiness.

    Elizabeth, I love the photo of you and your son! They grow up so fast don’t they?!

  • Judy

    Oh, sisters in habits : ) Many people would not even know they were talking to a sister these days, and the answers would not be as reflective, me thinks.

    I especially like the comments about not dwelling on happiness, as it makes you unhappy…. very well put.

  • Kensington

    I attended St. Denis from 1974-1982. It was a wonderful school.

  • Carl Pham

    Consider Victor Frankly: “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue [from the pursuit of meaning].”

  • PacRim Jim

    I’m happy with my life. It’s my death I’m not too fond of contemplating.

  • TeaPot562

    Each morning when I awake, I thank God for the lovely lady on the next pillow. We are in our 56th year of marriage. We’ve had some problems – mostly with other people (in-laws, grandkids, e.g.) but usually not with each other. We now have some physical problems (after all, we’re nearly 80), but we really have been blessed. We get to Mass most days; and pray a rosary together any time we’re in the car for a trip longer than ten minutes. We have many others to pray for – adult descendants no longer practicing the Faith, e.g.
    I agree with Katherine’s suggestion (comment 1) that “an attitude of gratitude” helps a bunch with keeping a cheerful outlook on life.

  • Lee

    Adrian Dominicans were my elementary school teachers as well, and I agree–wonderful women!

    (Except Srs. Antoinette and Agnes Delores, but I think they were teaching well into their 70s, bless their hearts.)

  • tioedong

    I don’t think “happiness” is the right word. “Happy” implies the luck of the draw, (“happenstance”) and has implications of a party type emotion of exuberance and one’s mood.

    Perhaps that is why so many take prozac or methamphetamine: it produces a temporary “happiness” in their lives.

    Perhaps the word you actually mean is different. Joy, for example, or contentment.

    Perhaps because I live in Asia, with “happy” people, I realize that American happiness means possessions and being rich, but here in the Philippines it implies working hard and being part of a family. There is a generosity of the spirit here that is missing in suburban America, perhaps because children the elderly and the extended family are seen as part of the reason we live, not as an obstacle to our career path to wealth.

  • _Jon
  • The Crack Emcee

    No, AnchorLady, that’s not the kind of question I ask myself. I find myself filled with an unexplainable joy from time-to-time, and I think that’s the key – to let good things come and appreciate them whenever they’re there. (Like I appreciate you.) Happiness, today, seems much more like a demand than something we’re able to pursue (as our country says we have a right to) as we see fit. But that’s not why I’m writing:

    It’s when you made the shift from happiness to gratitude, you reminded me of The Landmark Forum cult’s infiltration of the restaurant business, through Panda Express and – yes – the sinister Cafe Gratitude.

    You know how I feel about cults, so I’ll spare you a diatribe, but I will remind you that – like the “breathing exercises” cults are always offering to recruits – there are easily exploitable pitfalls in trying to attain that which comes naturally.

  • jayhawk

    Happiness comes from happenstance I think. If you are alive without pain you ought to think you are happy, cause things will change.

  • PatHMV

    Count me among those who believe that we find or induce our own happiness.

    Looked at any objective or even subjective measurement, there are always, in any area, people who are better off than we are, and people who are worse off than we are. There are millions if not billions of people who are more successful or less successful in their jobs, relationships, social life, sex life, or whatever than I am. I can focus on the ones who are better off than me, and think myself unhappy, or I can focus on the many, many blessings that I have received that other have not, and be happy and joyful. I choose the latter.

    What truly perplexes me about these interviews is the obsession with Vietnam. I can understand it in the individual soldiers and sailors, or young men of draftable age; their natural fear of being sent into combat is understandable. But that one guy, in the second clip, he was clearly focused on Vietnam as a political issue, and it made him unhappy. Why would anybody let their happiness depend on policies and decisions and actions over which they have no control?

    I wonder if they think they will or should feel guilty about being happy when the world remains imperfect. If a perfect world is their criteria which must be met before they can be happy, then they will be unhappy for a very, very long time.

  • Patrick1

    Happiness is actually “Happens To Us” and therefore is limted by time. Time is the enemy of happiness and makes us do whatever we can to stay happy. Often to our harm.

    I prefer joy. Joy is permanent because it is based on the only thing that lasts. Love.

  • SamIam

    Try not to generalize, Tioedong. America has plenty of people who cherish as you and yours do.

  • David

    I think that Tioedong begins to make a good point.

    To further it, what makes so many people “unhappy”?
    Yearning after things that they can’t have, and even when acquiring “things”, finding that this too, does not bring happiness?

    Pursuing those material things in this world that are symbols of happiness is not the same as achieving a more fulfilling metaphysical happiness or spiritual fulfillment.

    Material wealth or well being alone is not the means or the end to happiness.

    Which I guess is what Sr. Mary Catherine above at (8) is trying to tell us.

  • Jerry

    An engaging thread. Well produced and with thoughtful and wise comments.

    My wife went to St. Denis at about this time. The odds of how things come together sometimes hints of the divine. To believe that God is concerned with you is certainly a source of happiness. For her, after calling her in to check out this article it made her happy, then thoughtful.

    Of course, believing that God is concerned about you is to be grateful, so ditto.

    On another note, I was faced with my own shortcomings the other day. The thought process led to the fact that nothing really matters except that God created us for his happiness. If our abilities are small then who are we to worry about it.

  • Greg

    Happiness is expressed in the St. Augustine quote, “Our hearts are restless until we rest in You.” Happiness is fulfillment and no material things, power or sex can make us happy because we want more once we get these things. So the St. Augustine quote leads to God. It is only in God do we find happiness or fulfillment. St. Augustine ought to know since he pursued these earthly things to find happiness. It was only after years of not being satisfied did he find happiness in God.

  • Dave H

    Very, very happy. But I am now so easy to please. In 2009 I had cancer. 50-50 chance of survival. Four really awful operations later, it was dead and I am alive. In 2010, I was bitten by a rattlesnake. Major dose of venom, vomiting blood, went into shock, etc., etc. But I’m still here, to enjoy the evening, birds chirping in the background, a nestling robin looked me in the eye — gutsy little fellow! Kids with friends, will be home later.

    I know little of metaphysical happiness, but after you’ve twice diced with death, it is sufficient to be alive.

  • George Purcell

    My son, 3, has the delightful habit of running up to you when you are upset or angry and saying “Be happy!”

    It never fails to work.

  • Greta

    My grandma would have jumped all over this question. The right question are you Holy? Are you in the State of Grace. It matters little if we are happy in this life for it is but the blink of an eye. But if you are Holy and in the State of Grace, you will have an inner joy that carries us forth through all the valleys of life. The second question she would ask us is if we show the world the wonder of being Holy and in the State of Grace. She always had an inner part of her that illuminated her entire being. Being happy is all about you. Being Holy is about dying of self and allowing Christ to live within you. In her last years, ( she lived to be 104 years old much to her chagrin) she would attack the thought that we were supposed to be building our children with huge self esteem. I think I read Mother Theresa was also appalled by this. She said it was hard enough to become humble without some fool telling you to esteem yourself, even worse with false puffed up things which were false in the first place. Her preiction was that it would lead to generations of people who thought only of themselves and who would turn over to government what was reserved for God creating a nanny state. People with huge self esteem would think of themselves as worthy of ever more rights and privledges and that they would also want to end all talk of sin, damnation, and hell.

    My grandma always was teaching and always insured us that we had her unconditional love which demanded also that she did everything possible to get us to heaven. That did not come with eartly happiness, but with holyness, deep and true humility based on the knowledge we were sinful and in total need of Christ Mercy, and that we fought always to be in the state of grace. She loved the Catholic Church as Gods instrument to aid in her mission to be forever united to God.

    Of course that is my two cents on this question, and yes, it is nice to be happy. I found real happiness only comes with holiness and closeness to Christ. It is where joy can be found internally. Grandma and God has some very serious conversations as he made her linger on this earth instead of bringing her home. She also was very mad that God chose to bring her rascal of a husband home 50 years before her. When asked if she thought he was working his way through purgatory, her answer was no, God would not want to hear from her if He made her husband suffer to much. It always reminded me of the widow and the judge who was pestered every day. When she died, the only thing I wanted was her prayer books and the mass of notes on paper and on holy cards gathered from the funerals of all those she loved and had lost. I am not working on a book based on what she left if God so wills it.

  • survcon63

    Dave H

    That you are still here makes me happy!

  • Foolish Mortal

    I agree with Dave H…I’m extremely happy. I, too, am easy to please. I’ve had 3 heart attacks, 6 angiograms, the placement of 9 coronary stents, and a double coronary bypass in January. I now have another artery that is partially blocked and will need another heart surgery in the future. ONLY by God’s grace am I here today to write this, enjoy my family and be a wife to my husband of 38 years! All my praise goes to Him who saw fit to save me. I don’t get angry, resentful, jealous, etc., anymore…why waste what time I have left feeling those wasted emotions? If I wake up in the morning and I’m above ground…it’s automatically a good day! =:o]

  • Ed Nutter

    These all apply:

    Happiness is a moral obligation.

    The Missing Tile Syndrome

  • Bruce

    Thanks to all of you who made such great comments.

    An incredible web site that will give encouragement to those nearing the end (and the rest of us too!):

    As Yogi Berra might say ‘It ain’t over when it’s over’

  • Linda Starr

    From Wikipedia:

    “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is one of the most famous phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence and considered by some as part of one of the most well crafted, influential sentences in the history of the English language.[1] These three aspects are listed among the “unalienable rights” or sovereign rights of man.

    Given that so many have died in order for all of us here in the U.S. to have a shot at this particular unalienable right, I don’t believe that I want to diminish it in any way whatsoever!

    Ask anyone in Evin Prison how much they’d give for the ability and the freedom to pursue happiness.

    What has become of us that we agonize and twist over the concept?

    Gratitiude should begin with the recognition of the path towards happiness that has been prepared for each citizen with the blood of our founding fathers and those who have died to protect our republic and our freedom.

    Because that path is being filled with ruts and detours prepared by our enemy and our fates will be sealed if and when we no longer see this path.

    God bless the U.S.A.

  • Francis W. Porretto

    We learn empirically that happiness is the one “thing” that cannot be pursued directly.

    Aristotle defined happiness in the only way it can ever be defined: that which we seek as an end in itself and for no other reason. Happiness, he posited, is not utilitarian in nature. An economist would call it the ultimate consumer good, as it has absolutely no “capital value.” Combine that with our inability to seek it directly — can you even conceive of a happiness fountain, or a happiness mine, or, God preserve us, a happiness drug? — and it becomes clear that we must look away from it to see it clearly.

    And when we look away from it, we realize two things:
    1) The question “Are you happy?” is functionally equivalent to the question “Are you living right?”
    2) No one immured beneath the veil of Time can ever be “perfectly happy.”

    Thus, any thoughtful person who confronts the question seriously will automatically translate it into its Aristotelian equivalent…and for a little while at least, he’ll be unsatisfied with his answer, regardless of what it is.

    And that is exactly as it should be.

  • Win Nelson

    Elizabeth, thank you for this post and I thank everyone for their comments!

    Brandy’s comments hit home for me. I learned late in life to thank God for everything: even if something happened that had every appearance of being bad, such as being very sick, to the point of being in medical danger.

    I learned that being very sick was a blessed gift from God; not that I would wish it on anyone, but it was when I was very sick that I received God’s blessings, grace and love from Him through his children and it helped me to establish a better relationship with God. I could have died, but God chose for me to live and kindly gave me these blessings.

    I now thank God every day for my sickness, recovery and for God’s blessings, love and grace that I received along the way and I pray for God’s help that I will share these blessings, love and grace with all of God’s children.

  • Susan

    If God is all things then happiness is in God.

    So the question is, is God happy with that which passes the Collectivist plate of enforced universal government healthcare charity used to support and fund the lives of sex-enslaved teenage girls impregnated by their johns and whose pimps and parents seek out the charity of government-funded Planned Parenthood abortions which are used to eliminate the burden of Life?

    Is God happy that we his children use his blessings of tithe and offerings in such manner?

  • TheAbstractor

    You and the other commenters are correct in the importance of gratitude in achieving happiness, but we shouldn’t treat gratitude as if it itself were an easy thing to achieve.

    For one, gratitude, at first blush, is logically inconsistent with the believe in an omnipotent/omniscient God. Why should one be thankful that God gave someone $10,000 when it was in His power to just as easily give someone $20,000 dollars or more? Why should a paraplegic be thankful he’s not a quadriplegic when God is able to make him perfectly healthy? The naive “it could be worse” thinking toward gratitude basically places humanity in a bomb shelter trying to protect ourselves from a malevolent heaven–not exactly a mindset that promotes happiness.

    But a perspective on the matter becomes clear when we up the ante from “Why don’t I have $20k?” to “Why aren’t I omnipotent/omniscient?”, and we confront the angst common with all humanity: That we are stuck being a creation subject to God and his universe rather than a creator fearful or beholden to no one. Then the question boils down to whether or not you’d prefer your subordinated existence to no existence to all, or whether or not God was justified in creating you? The truly thankful (and ultimately happy) will chose the former. Those who choose the later will find themselves in Satan’s camp–apparently the first being to ever answer the question in the negative.

  • Stan Beck

    For me happiness is an emotion and emotions swing so wildly sometimes. This winter i think i discovered what it is to be joyful. I can be joyful wither I am happy or sad, lonely or in the company of my friends.

    The source of this joyfulness is the knowledge and faith that I have THE God and he is wonderful and loving.

  • chris

    The correct perspective on happiness would nearly end divorce as we know it

  • chris

    @ jenny above who said

    “It is like the woman from a few months ago in the NYTimes? that decided to “improve” her marriage and examine how it was working and nearly destroyed it in the process. I think happiness is a lot like that.

    When you spend a lot of time worrying about your own happiness, you become so self involved that the quality eludes you.””

    Yes yes yes, and thus, women go digging thru relationship help books and instead of help, find all the problems mentioned in the books suddenly “oh yeah, my husband does that too”….then unhappy….and gotta fix it, so, they “examine” their marriage…..and by golly they end up so danged unhappy the file a divorce…..well, only 70% of the time