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What is happiness? (Part II)

Daniel McInerny - published on 02/04/13

Is it a collection of material things, an achievement of some sort, or a positive feeling? And is happiness something one and the same for everyone, or is it rather a subjective mood or preference?

In the first part of our investigation into the nature of happiness, we were on the lookout for something that was not a mere means to something else, something distinctively human, and something that somehow originates in us. We found such an item in virtuous activity, the excellent exercise of our rational capability. But virtuous action is of many kinds: there are activities of what we call the moral virtues, such as courage, temperance, and justice, and there are activities of what we call the intellectual virtues, such as practical wisdom and the habits associated with the various arts and sciences. All of these virtuous activities can be described as ways of loving the truth. Ultimately, our love of truth is directed toward he who is both Truth and Love. The summit of virtuous activity is the exercise of the intellectual virtue of wisdom in the loving contemplation of God – a contemplation woefully imperfect in this life, but fulfilled in Heaven in the exercise the Church calls “the beatific vision.”

Too often we fall into thinking that happiness is essentially “out there” somewhere – in a new person who might come into our life, a new job, more money, better health, public recognition of our efforts, more just social conditions, and the like. It is not wholly mistaken to fall into this way of thinking; after all, the items on this list are all good things. But the focus on virtuous action as the core of the happy life redirects our gaze away from things “outside” us and toward what we are able to do “inside” – that is, what we are able to initiate using our ability as rational animals to know the truth and lovingly act upon it. “Proactivity” has become a commonplace term in discussions of effectiveness in the workplace, but happiness is the preeminent “pro-activity.” Happiness is not a piece of good fortune that hopefully will happen to us, nor is it a successful product or achievement. In its essence, happiness is an interior act by which we love the truth.

Human reason is the “governor” of such interior acts of virtue, for it is by reason that we are able to grasp the truth that should be the inspiration and purpose of all our actions. Truth is grasped in more than one way. We come to know truth, for example, through scientific inquiry, but also through moral reflection and aesthetic experience, not to mention direct revelation by God.

As the governor of our actions, reason seeks to put order either into the will, or into one or more passions or feelings. The various moral virtues are distinguished by whether they pertain to reason’s ordering of the feelings (as in courage, temperance, generosity, and meekness), or reason’s ordering of the will (the virtue of justice). In all of these virtuous acts our love for the truth is played out. And again, what is most important is not what we achieve by any of these acts, but our interior disposition in doing them.

This is not to say that trying to do real good in the world counts for nothing. Far from it – reason always directs us to the service of our fellow human beings, to the service of what in the Catholic tradition is called “the common good.” But as we see in the parable of the poor widow who only put two mites into the treasury (Luke 21:1-4), what matters most is the love with which we do things, not the results (no matter how noble) we achieve.

What is interesting about the virtuous life is that the things we often mistake for happiness are not forgotten about, but pursued in richer and more satisfying ways. The virtuous life values wealth, just not at the expense of more important things. The virtuous life does not disdain sex, but sets it within the beautiful context of marriage and family life. The virtuous life places a dear value on friendship, but values above all friendships based upon the shared pursuit of the virtuous life.

In the Beatitudes (Matthew, Chapter 5), Our Lord sets forth the principles of the happy life in the Christian sense. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs…. Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” These are rather startling pronouncements about the happy life; who naturally thinks happiness has to do with being poor, with mourning, with being reviled? Even linking happiness with showing mercy and being a peacemaker is not the kind of link we are prone to make. Christ’s understanding of happiness challenges us to pursue a fulfillment beyond the reach of unaided reason. The Christian understanding of happiness does have some basis in natural virtue’s love of truth, but it takes that love and deepens it in unexpected ways – even to the point of persecution if it enables us to unite ourselves in love with our God, who through his Passion united his life to ours.

Therefore, there are various dimensions of the happy life: there is the life of what I just called natural virtue, and there is then the happy life of Christian virtue, made possible by the gifts of what St. Thomas Aquinas calls the “theological virtues” – namely faith, hope and love (Summa theologiæ I-II, question 62, article 1). But even Christian virtue in this earthly life, even if lived by a saint, leaves our love for the truth still unsatisfied. Our hearts will not rest until they find a True Love that is perfectly lovable and perfectly true (Summa theologiæ, I-II, question 2, article 8). Our happiness, to paraphrase St. Augustine, will always be restless until we rest in the loving vision of God “as he is” that the blessed enjoy in Heaven (1 John 3:2-3).

These words from Pope Benedict’s recent homily on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1, 2013) are a fitting way to end this reflection on happiness:

For sacred Scripture, contemplating the face of God is the greatest happiness: “You gladden him with the joy of your face” (Psalm 21:7). From the contemplation of the face of God are born joy, security and peace. But what does it mean concretely to contemplate the face of the Lord, as understood in the New Testament? It means knowing him directly, in so far as is possible in this life, through Jesus Christ in whom he is revealed.

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