Some thoughts on happiness

“…this way delight is necessary for happiness. For it is caused by the appetite being at rest in the good attained.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

What is happiness?  How do you know if you have achieved happiness? Is that knowledge possible before we reach the end of this life?

In Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Mortimer J. Adler says, “[Happiness] is not something we can ever cease to strive for as long as we are alive, or something we can come to rest in when achieved, because then we are no longer alive.” Happiness, according to this chapter, is a normative goal, not a terminal one, one with a fixed “arrival point.” It motivates us to create “a whole life well lived”; but there is not a time in our lives when we can sit back and say, “there, we’ve done it; we’ve achieved happiness; but what will we do tomorrow?”

Lucy: Why do you think we’re put here on earth, Charlie Brown?

CB: To make others happy.

Lucy: I don’t think I’M making anyone very happy. Of course nobody’s making ME very happy either. SOMEBODY’S NOT DOING HIS JOB! (Charles Schulz, Peanuts)

In this sense, happiness is “the moral quality of a whole human life.” Not only can we have that goal, but we must have it, and must acknowledge that every human being ultimately desires happiness; that, in fact, it is also what God desires for us. Really. He wants us to be happy, in the highest sense of the word. I’ve read that God Himself must be supremely happy, and that is a shocking but quite logical idea.

“I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of [C. S.] Lewis’s stature, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said) but also ought to seek our own happiness. Our mistake lies not in the intensity of our desire for happiness, but in the weakness of it.” (John Piper, Desiring God)

However, Adler also quotes Aristotle’s extended definition: “a whole life, lived in accordance with moral virtue, and accompanied by a moderate possession of wealth.” He emphasizes that last phrase, pointing out that even if someone is morally good, life’s circumstances can make him literally, as Dickens might say, an “unhappy creature.”

Lucy: I’m intrigued by this view you have on the purpose of life, Charlie Brown. You say we’re put on this earth to make others happy? … What are the others put here for?

And as Dickens would point out, if we have it in our power to improve those circumstances for others, to encourage others’ pursuit of happiness, then we ought to do so. God can use bad circumstances to develop character in people, but we’re not supposed to make extra work for God by contributing to those circumstances. We can’t achieve happiness for others, but maybe we can improve their chances.

Adler points out that this kind of happiness does not exclude Christian belief in “heavenly, eternal happiness.” Eternal joy in heaven is a terminal goal, like reaching the Celestial City; but we can still have the normative goal of happiness in this life, as long as we recognize that it’s not a thing we can boast that we have grasped. We can say we have come to a point of contentment, yes; we can experience great amounts of enjoyment. But happiness, that’s something bigger. So perhaps those who look forward to eternity, who aren’t expecting complete happiness in this life, actually have an edge on understanding the “normative” character of happiness.

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