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Have You Forgotten What Happiness Is?

Jeremy Nelson

Daniel McInerny - published on 12/10/13

We were made for truth, goodness, and beauty, all which can only be satisfied in God.

I slept pretty well last night, and so I launched the week in a good mood.

One of the books on my night-stand is Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Last night I was reading Murray’s account of the religious origins of poetry in the ancient Mediterranean world. Fascinating stuff.

What’s the difference between these two experiences, sleeping and reading, other than that in one my eyes are open (at least for awhile)?

It’s the difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure is a feeling. It’s the physical-emotional response we experience whenever we participate in some sensible good. It’s pleasant to lay supine in the dreamless for an uninterrupted seven hours. Who’s going to argue with that?

Joy, however, is not essentially a physical-emotional response. Joy is an intellectual response, and so is more characteristic of our rational nature than is pleasure. The object of joy is not a sensible good at all, but a good of either our intellect or will. Truth, goodness and beauty–these are what our rational nature craves. And the deep satisfaction we experience when we obtain them is a more spiritual experience than the pleasure we feel in sleeping or eating.

Pleasure and joy can come together. A fine dinner may bring with it substantial gustatory pleasure, even as the conversation around the table satisfies our rational desires for truth and friendship. Animals are meant to feed, but human beings are meant to dine.  

Joy is the concept Pope Francis is so eager to teach us. For he is afraid that the world we live in is dulling our capacity to experience joy. At the beginning of his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Francis says (quoting his predecessor, Paul VI):

“Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.”

So where do we find joy? Again, we find it in truth, goodness and beauty, but above all in truth, the very union of our mind with reality. St. Augustine defines happiness as gaudium de veritate: “joy in the truth.” Happiness in the best sense, then, must be found in knowing the truth about God.

And the greatest truth there is to know about God, writes Francis, is that, no matter what, we are infinitely loved by him:

“There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17, 21-23, 26).

Have you forgotten, perhaps, what happiness is?

Though it be only “a flicker of light,” how are you experiencing joy today?

Daniel McInerny is the editor of Aleteia’s English language edition. You are invited to contact him at daniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, and to follow him on Twitter @danielmcinerny

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