What Is Happiness?

Due to my working late and having church early in the morning, today’s blog is going up early.

Our society is closer to Brave New World than it is to 1984. In Brave New World, everything was made to bring about the happiness of the people in the society. Now naturally, I am not against happiness, but I am in support of true happiness and not false happiness. Mortimer Adler has referred to our confusion of what happiness is as one of the great philosophical mistakes. As he states, we have confused happiness with “Having a good time.”

I’ll grant this is one that I am prone to and probably many of us are. While waiting for those precious few minutes for my computer to boot up and to restore my sessions of what I was doing before, I am one who will seek to do something else enjoyable. I suppose I am not alone in that in this day and age. We always want to be doing something and think our happiness lies in that.

Compare that to the ancient mindset and even the medieval mindset. Thomas Aquinas looked at contemplation as one of the greatest activities a man can engage in. Today, we don’t really care for silence at all and we don’t care for inactivity. We lock men up in prison where they have silence and solitude as punishment.

There is also the case where we have confused happiness with a feeling. We want the good feeling of happiness. Now I will of course admit that happiness can bring about the feelings. Happiness is not the feeling though. If you were to ask me if I usually feel happy, I would have to say no. I am a constant worrywart obsessing over every tiny little problem and having a great tendency to turn a molehill into a mountain.

Yet if I am honest, at times, I will find happiness overtakes me and it is the simplest things. I have written before about the realization of where I live and that I live with a good friend as bringing about happiness. Yesterday, another friend of mine and I went to the Y after a visit from the Mormons to check out the outdoor pool. While in the pool on the edge where I always stay, I got captivated watching a man kick a ball around and juggle it with his feet. With my interest in philosophy, I start wondering things like “Isn’t it amazing how we all seem to know the material world is there?” “How is it that we can do the simplest movements even such as telling ourselves how to walk?” “Is this man really doing something that he is enjoying?”

I think noticing our lovely lifeguards taking a dive diverted my attention at that point, but that is another kind of happiness as well.

We do not have to be engaged in activity of the kind we think though to be happy. We should be having happiness simply in the reality of the world we live in. There is enough every day to bring about happiness. Part of our problem in our experience-oriented world as Christians comes in here also. We expect God to give us stupendous experiences to show his love for us. (Many a skeptic expects God to do something incredible to show he is there.)

Now I do believe God has done such things in history, but they are not the norm. Why should God give us something stupendous when we are not willing to accept the simple things he has given us? To see if he exists, just see the world as it is. If you say that X is beautiful, you immediately have to see if it’s beautiful in itself or if you’re just pushing that on it. The same for if X action is good. In the end, it would be interesting to know if there is anything objective at all.

Another mistake we’ve made is that for the ancients, happiness could not be separated from virtue. If you wanted to be happy, you had to live right. In contrast today, we often think of morality as an obstacle to our happiness. This is what has happened with our fascination with sexuality in our society. If we accept the biblical standard, we won’t be happy in our sex lives. This is interesting since those who do accept these standards have been found to be quite happy in their sex lives. It seems more likely that the person going from person to person looking for a fix is the one that is not happy.

Thus, we come to the problem. If sex is viewed as simply a means to make us happy, then it will fail. Only God can provide the kind of happiness we seek. We cannot turn sex into a god. It will instead become a drug. Any god you seek after will eventually have you serving it instead of it serving you. The person will become a slave to sex rather than being a master to it. (And perchance, of it?) In our world, we call that addiction.

Looking back then on the question that started this out about homosexual marriage, the question is not “Does it make them happy?” The question is “Is it moral?” If it isn’t moral, then it really won’t make them happy. It might give them good feelings, but those feelings are not happiness itself. Many things we do that are wrong give us good feelings at the time and we know they do even as we do them knowing they are wrong, but they are not what is going to truly lead to us being happy as we realize later on when we regret them whenever we think of them.

If our society is going to survive, I honestly believe we’re going to have to reclaim what happiness is and draw that back to virtue, a word not often heard in our society and a good not usually sought.