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What is happiness? (Part I)

Daniel McInerny - published on 02/01/13

Ask anyone what he or she wants most out of life, and the answer will inevitably be “happiness.” But what is happiness, really? Is it a collection of material things, an achievement of some sort, or a positive feeling?

“What are you looking for?” Christ asks Andrew and the other apostle who follow him after he is pointed out to them as the Lamb of God by John the Baptist (see John 1:35-42). In following after Christ, Andrew and his friend were looking for that same thing we are all searching: total fulfillment and everlasting joy. Who does not, in the midst of a tiresome morning commute or at the end of a long day, ask himself: “Is this it? Is this all that my life amounts to?” The human heart is persistent in demanding always “more.” But more of what? What exactly is it that we are looking for in searching after happiness, and is it even possible to achieve it? As embodied spirits subject to the penalty of Adam, we human beings are prone to seek out happiness among material things: wealth, physical pleasure, honor or recognition, fame or prestige, and the health necessary to prolong our enjoyment of these things. In our better moments we realize that things like friendship and justice and knowledge are more valuable still. Yet what we don’t readily comprehend is that none of these items can deliver the everlasting joy for which we yearn. We long for “love and truth,” as Pope Benedict has succinctly put it, and yet nothing on earth can fully answer to our need for them – not even our dearest friends. A merely human happiness, even granting its manifold consolations, will always leave us unsatisfied. What the Church invites us to reflect upon is that we will not find the happiness we are looking for until we ask the Lord himself, “Where are you staying?” and follow him to a Love and Truth as infinite as the longing of the human heart.  

There is no more important question for a human being to ask than “What is happiness? In what will I find my fulfillment?” As we go about our day, we are not always directly focused on this question, and yet the question is always there, hovering in the back of the mind. “Is this activity or task going to help me realize the desire I have for x? And is x itself going to satisfy me in the way I hope?” It seems we cannot escape the desire for evermore – indeed, perfect – satisfaction.

Since ancient times, philosophers and theologians have sought an answer to the question of happiness. Eventually a set of likely candidates emerged, a list that remains relevant for us today. Wealth is a candidate on this list, along with physical pleasure, honor (the public recognition of our excellence), fame (the repute our name enjoys), as well as less understood candidates such as virtue and contemplation.  

Let’s consider the first several items on this list: wealth, physical pleasure, honor, and fame. There is no doubt that these items are what many human beings spend much of their time pursuing. Could it be that happiness is a life organized around the pursuit of one, or some, or all of these goods? Notice that I just called them “goods” – wealth, physical pleasure, honor, and fame are not evil. They are goods in that there is something very attractive about them, something that truly satisfies us in some way. So our question is not whether these candidates for happiness are good or not; it is whether one or more of these candidates is our ultimate good, the good that will bring us total satisfaction and everlasting joy.

To this latter question, the consistent answer of philosophers and theologians has been negative. For all its usefulness, wealth is only that: a tool, a means to a further end. And whatever else happiness is, it cannot be a mere means to something else; it has to be something ultimate. Physical pleasure is an obvious good, but as Aristotle notes, physical pleasure can be enjoyed even by the lower animals. Yet we are not looking for something that we share with other creatures; we are looking for human happiness – the fulfillment of our distinctive nature. Honor and fame are always attractive to the human heart, especially to men. But think about it: honor and fame are not goods that we can give to ourselves; they are bestowed on us by others. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that if our happiness depends essentially on what other people do for us, it does not seem to be ours. Oftentimes we fall into thinking that happiness depends on what some other person will think about or do for us. But on reflection, it would be strange if our deepest satisfaction were so vulnerable, if it were not something that we brought into being.

An answer is now beginning to come clear: In looking for happiness, we are looking for a good that is not a mere means; a good that is distinctive to us as human beings; a good that somehow originates in us. Now it could very well be that wealth, physical pleasure, honor, and fame will be part of a happy life. But it seems that none of them, not even the combination of them, can be the organizing principle of the happy life. What, then, can happiness be?

Go back to what we were saying about physical pleasure. If physical pleasure is not the distinctive activity of human beings, then what is? Traditionally, human beings have been defined as rational animals. The activity of reason must somehow, then, be central to happiness, especially when we consider that rational activity is activity that also can originate in us.

We are now close to Aristotle’s famous definition of happiness, which has been adopted by the moral teaching of the Catholic Church: happiness is an activity of soul in accord with reason. Aristotle further argues that happiness is rational activity performed excellently. For we don’t define the characteristic activity of something by what it does middling well. Human beings, like computers and fishing rods, are defined by their highest capability.

Our answer so far to the question of happiness may seem rather cold: happiness is excellent rational activity. Does this mean that we become happy by performing quadratic equations in algebra, or by learning how to recognize fallacies in logic?

“Rational activity,” we should take care to note, is a general term for a whole host of different activities. Excellent rational activity, in fact, is just another way of talking about virtue, and there are many different kinds of virtue, each of them displaying a different aspect of the excellence of our rational nature.

The exercise of reason in virtuous action is ultimately what happiness is all about. Accordingly, in the continuation of this question, we will get clearer on what it means to act virtuously, and how virtuous activity ultimately relates to God. 

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