In Catholic theology, man was made for happiness.
“One thing all humans have in common is that we all want to be happy. In America, it is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right to pursue happiness along with the rights to life and liberty. It seems like all our energies go into pursuing happiness in these strange times. Everyone today seems to do what they do because it will make them happy, hardly anything could be more normal. It has always been this way. Can you imagine someone saying to themselves “I am going to do this because I know it will make me unhappy?” It is unlikely.
The pursuit of happiness is big business in America and it probably always has been. All of technology is geared towards making things that make us happy. All popular entertainment is directed at making us happy. Our schools, the mass media, politicians, psychologists and even our lawyers would like to help make us happy. We ourselves are encouraged nonstop to pursue happiness. What a great irony it is today to notice how unhappy everyone seems to be. The world can be a miserable place, especially considering the efforts we make to be happy. Have you ever wondered why so many people are so unhappy these days? We ought to try to figure out why. First, we must define the term happiness.
What is happiness?
There are at least three different ways to understand happiness. There is modern American happiness we associate with wealth and health. We can call this appetitive happiness because it is grounded in our sense appetites. Winning the lottery is most likely to make us happy. We are content to get the new iPhone, or a new car, or a good job etc. The difficulty with this definition of happiness is that it is really more like contentment and it is temporary. The things that make us happy by this definition fade quickly and we must be off to pursue the next thing that will kick-start our serotonin production. If we take a step back from this kind of happiness we begin to notice that nothing really ever satisfies us for very long and no matter how much we end up getting, it is never enough.
A second kind of happiness we can associate with what the Ancient Greeks called “eudaimonia.” This is a very good kind of happiness associated with the acquisition of virtue. Eudaimonia translates as a good and lasting spiritual state resulting from developing habits of excellence. This kind of happiness is particularly associated with the right use of the intellect and is grounded in the moral and intellectual virtues discovered and elucidated by the greatest minds of ancient philosophy. The primary virtues associated with eudaimonia are the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance. The Greeks understood that to pursue and achieve excellence was the way to live the good life. Those who are able to achieve excellence in virtue are generally very happy, and the happiness is lasting and fulfilling.
The third kind of happiness is blessedness. Christians call it beatitude. It is associated with the rightly ordered will. While eudaimonia obtains happiness in this life, beatitude aims at eternal happiness. The one who teaches us about this kind of happiness is Jesus Christ, the one true teacher in the Sermon on the Mount found beginning in Matthew 5. Beatitude is achieved when a soul submits his will to the will of God and cooperates with grace to become perfected. A soul inspired by the beatific vision is one who seeks excellence not only in the cardinal virtues mentioned above, but seeks to be perfected by the acquisition and infusion of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
What is the problem today?
We might easily observe today that the world encourages us to pursue worldly happiness. We ourselves may pursue this kind of contentment and wonder why all of us seem never to be content for very long. Even if we are pursuing the wrong kind of happiness, and even if we know it, and even if we can’t seem to stop, there is a much deeper and more difficult problem that lies at the root of our restlessness today. This is in our misunderstanding of the nature of how things work. We are likely to invert the right order of things concerning being and doing.
C.S. Lewis described a principle of first and second things. First things are permanent and lasting, like the virtues and God. Second things are temporary like cars and iPhones. He explained that we ought to put first things first and second things second because if we put second things first and first things second we will lose both first and second things. He goes on to explain that if we put first things first we will get both first and second things. To use an agricultural metaphor, we might see agricultural labor, seeds and roots as permanent things while the fruit that is produced from the tress as the second things. You can see that if we seek the second things of the fruits, as we often do today, that we may get the fruit, but whether we eat it or let it rot, it will not last long. On the other hand, if we focus on agricultural labor to create the proper conditions for the trees, the trees will grow, produce fruit, and continue to produce fruit.
Our problem today is that we put second things first. Perhaps our most fundamental mistake is that we have inverted being and doing. Being is a first thing and doing is a second thing. We believe that what we do will determine who we become, but this is exactly upside down. It is who we are that determines what we will do. So instead of doing things that we think will make us who we want to become, we ought to cultivate the habits of being constituting the moral and intellectual virtues acquired by the saints. When we have become what God intends for us, then we will do good works. If we try the opposite, our attempts at good works cannot be fruitful, we will not become saints. It is when we become like the saints that we can produce good works.
So we might understand by analogy that what the tree is (being) produces (doing) its fruit. If a tree is an orange tree it will not produce an apple, and it had to be an orange tree first before it could even produce oranges, not the other way around. In Matthew 7:16, Christ said “you will know them by their fruits.” What we do comes forth from who we are. We are not what we do, what we do comes from what we are.
Which kind of happiness will you pursue?
When the world talks about happiness, it is not the same kind of happiness God intends for us. The world’s notions of happiness are about the acquisition of second things. The ancient Greeks and Jesus speak about the habits of being constituted by first things. Of course, the best kind of happiness is beatitude. It requires eudaimonia, the right use of the intellect, to serve in the acquisition of the truth in order to see rightly what is good and what is evil. It also requires that our contentment with second things be subordinated to the right use of reason that supports the rightly ordered will.
The grand irony in all this pursuit of happiness business is that those who seek primarily material happiness may end up getting what they want temporarily, but they always end in loss and despair. Those who seek beatitude also get what they seek, and it is a difficult endeavor, often beginning in loss and misery, but ending in glory. Job lost all the goods of second things and suffered greatly in the process, but because he maintained excellence in the virtues by his habits of being, he ended not only happy with his relationship with God, but contented by restoring the second things he had lost. It is a difficult thing to pursue virtue. It is not terribly difficult to pursue money. As we live out our inalienable right to pursue happiness, let us be wise in which kind of happiness we choose to pursue.”
Love & beatitude,