"Present mirth hath present laughter…"
—William Shakespeare, “Carpe Diem”
I was examining the magazines at our grocery store checkout stand the other day and concluded that happiness is firmness, fitness, prosperity, power, stardom, sex and pleasure. Bless my soul, we’ve forgotten that we do not live by bread alone.
Happiness, of course, is what everyone is seeking. That “end” was established long ago by the likes of Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers, who were musing on something we’ve always known: Regardless of the means, our end is happiness.
Human beings cannot not seek happiness. It’s why we do everything we do: It’s why we become tri–athletes or checker champs; why we speed–climb vertical rocks or turn into recumbent couch potatoes; why we become mechanics, machinists, mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. Masochists hurt themselves because they think that will make them happy. Murderers kill others to make themselves happy. Suicides kill themselves because they can’t stand to be unhappy. We are made to be happy and nothing else will do.
That’s why happiness is said to be our final end by philosophers and theologians, by which they mean that happiness is not the means to anything else. We don’t seek happiness so we can be rich. We don’t seek happiness so we can find love. It’s the other way around: We seek love, wealth and everything else so we can be happy. Thus happiness is our final end.
Happiness is not our chief end, however; that’s God. But even with reference to God, happiness is our final end. We don’t seek happiness to find God; we seek God to find ultimate happiness.
Our modern English word “happiness” normally means subjective satisfaction or contentment, usually the result of good fortune. A friend approaches me with a goofy grin on his face and I think: “Something good must have happened to him.” Thus we think of happiness as happenstance. Indeed, our English word “happiness” is based on an Old English word, “hap” that means “chance.”
The word ancient Greek philosophers used for happiness, however, was eudaimonia, best understood by breaking the word down into its component parts: The prefix, eu, means “good,” daimon is the Greek word for “spirit,” and ia suggests a “lasting state.” So authentic happiness is an enduring state of inner peace. It is knowing, despite all counter-indications, that it is well with one’s soul. For Jews it is shalom.
Here’s the crux: St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Since it is possible to be happy and there are certain acts that make us happy we must in due sequence consider by what acts we may be happy and by what acts we are prevented from attaining it.”
How eminently practical! It’s possible to be happy and there are certain things we can do that will make us happy. Should we not then, “consider by what acts we may be happy?”
Put simply, the way to be happy is to be good, something about which virtue theorists have agreed for millennia. Plato, in his dialogue, The Republic, said that happiness is elusive, but can be achieved though justice, i.e., doing the right thing. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, said, “Happiness is the reward of virtue” (Ethics 1.9). One of Israel’s poets said the same of his king: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore (for this reason) God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…” (Psalm 45:7). This is also the burden of Jesus’ beatitudes, his instruction on happiness. (The word “Beatitudes” comes from a Latin term beatus that means “happy.”) “Happiness is…” he insists, and then proceeds to give us a list of seven virtues (Matthew 5:3-10).
“Goodness is better than badness because it’s nicer,” Mammy Yokum said. “Nicer,” surely, but also more happifying. Happiness does not come from wealth, honor, fame, power, pleasure or any bodily good, as our popular culture would have us believe, but in doing the right thing. Should we not gain our understanding of happiness from the wise and not from fools?
[Here I add a parallel premise: If virtue makes us happy, vice makes us sad. Wrong–doing may awaken immediate, short–term, superficial exhilaration, but its after-taste is bitter. The Bible puts it plainly: we enjoy the pleasure of wrong-doing “for a season” (Hebrews 11:25).]
So, I ask myself, if I’m made for happiness and happiness comes from goodness why would I choose misery instead of joy? Wretchedness instead of happiness? Because I’m insane, that’s why. There can be no other explanation.
Now, it is true that neither you nor I will ever know complete happiness in this world. The best proof of that premise is that even in those moments when we’re supremely happy, we’re not happy. Something is missing. “This world is full of many miseries therefore man cannot be perfectly happy in this life,” Aquinas said, “but a certain participation of happiness can be had in this life” (Summa 111,5,3). Perfect happiness awaits heaven and home
But, if I want to be as happy as I can be in this world, I must be as good as I can be—overcome my sensuality, immodesty, moodiness, irascibility and intolerance, among other things—something I cannot do unless I ask for God’s help every day. “Only God is good,” Jesus said (Mark 10:18).Thus any goodness in human beings must be the work of His hands. “What a labor He has with us all! Shall we ever, some day, be all, and quite good like Thee?” George MacDonald asks (Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood).
God help us.