On Happiness

On Happiness March 27, 2022

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” – Psalm 30:5

As it seems is always the case, it is not difficult to find evil and suffering in the world. From Cain murdering his brother (Genesis 4:8) to the horrors of war in Eastern Europe, the history of humankind is a history of bloodshed. 

Despite such a dismal history, human beings never stop seeking happiness. Everyone aims to be happy regardless of age, race, nationality, or religion. Unlike many of the things we seek in this world, happiness is sought for its own sake. We do not seek happiness to obtain money, but we seek money to obtain happiness.

In the following discourse, I will discuss this very human desire. I will begin by discussing the differences between pleasure and happiness. Lastly, I will explore what Catholicism has to say about finding happiness.

Pleasure

Pleasure is a type of satisfaction that is derived from the senses. Since pleasure is experiential, it does not rise above the level of the body, it is, in a way, superficial. Owing to its sensuous nature, pleasure is fleeting and subjective. Fleeting because the sensation or feeling of pleasure lasts only so long as the cause of the experience. Subjective because pleasure is not born of human nature; what brings pleasure to one may not be pleasurable to another.  

Catholicism is not puritanical, and I do not wish to suggest that pleasure in and of itself is bad. God’s creation is good (Genesis 1:31), and human beings are meant to enjoy it. That means enjoying the goods of the material world. Yet the spiritual and immortal soul is not ultimately satisfied with the material and finite goods of this world. It yearns, we yearn, for more.

Happiness

Unlike pleasure, happiness relates to the state of one’s soul. Unlike pleasure, happiness is not reliant on the senses. For this reason, it is possible to be happy while not experiencing pleasure.

It is telling that the subject of happiness has intrigued and occupied the great philosophers. For Aristotle, happiness is the final goal or end for human beings. It is the reason why human beings are created. Interestingly, Aristotle thought that one could not be thought happy until the end of their life. Only then could one see the “body of work” and determine if one was truly happy. Aristotle writes, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” (Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2012).

At this point, a question may arise. Isn’t happiness subjective? Does not each person decide for themselves what makes them happy? The answer is that happiness is personal up to a point. Specific activities will bring more or less happiness to different people. However, ultimate happiness is a condition of the soul. And since the soul is the basis for human nature, ultimate happiness is finally objective or true of all human beings. 

In order to understand what happiness is, it is necessary to admit two things of human nature, first that human beings are rational and second that they possess free will. If human beings are not rational, they could not be aware of an objective moral standard, and if human beings did not have free will, they could not be held responsible for their moral decisions. 

What does this have to do with happiness? Returning to Aristotle, a person is happy when he lives in accord with his nature. Since human beings are rational and moral by nature, Aristotle believed that one needed to be virtuous to be happy. 

Where to Find Happiness

It seems that while virtue is undoubtedly necessary for happiness, it is insufficient in the absence of God. The reason is that for true and lasting happiness to occur, a person’s nature must be perfected. Since human beings are made for God, the perfection of one’s nature can only happen when one is in communion with God.

Unfortunately, perfect communion with God requires the beatific vision, which cannot happen in this life. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas thought that perfect happiness was unattainable while one was still alive. In this way, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that ultimate or perfect happiness cannot be attained in this life. 

In this sense, Aquinas seems to accept the view that “For now we see as through a glass darkly, but then we see face to face.” Accurate knowledge of God requires seeing Him directly, but this is only possible by a wholly purified soul, and that can only occur when one is in Heaven. Heaven is the satisfaction of every human desire. As Saint Augustine put it, “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you [God].” (Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. 1960).

While it is true that we cannot be in perfect communion with God, it does not mean that we cannot find some degree of happiness in this life. 

In Matthew 5:3–12, Jesus lists eight beatitudes or blessings. Since to be blessed is to be happy, the beatitudes provide the framework for a happy life. I will list and briefly describe each of the beatitudes.

1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. The poor are aware of their need and dependence upon God.

2) Blessed are they who mourn for they will be comforted. God promises comfort for those who suffer. In addition, our own suffering allows for the opportunity to be compassionate to others in pain.

3) Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. The meek are humble and patient. Additionally, they find other ways to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.

4) Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. This is a blessing for those who seek justice since the Kingdom of Heaven epitomizes perfect justice.

5) Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercyA blessing for those who forgive and are kind and compassionate. God will repay them.

6) Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. It is a blessing to have no malice in one’s heart and to be able to see God in other people.

7) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Those who seek to cultivate peace are blessed.

 8) Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are people who suffer because they seek to do what is right.

Yet one cannot properly live out the beatitudes without the grace of God. For Catholics, the obtainment of that grace comes from partaking in the sacraments, particularly baptism, confession, and the eucharist. 

Conclusion

Happiness can be defined as the greatest good in that it is that which is sought for its own sake. Catholicism asserts that the greatest good is God. Therefore, to be truly happy, to be truly blessed, is to be in communion with God. While full communion with God must wait for the next life, finding happiness in this one is not entirely impossible. As the psalmist reminds us, blessed is he who takes refuge in God.


Browse Our Archives

Close Ad