Our Calling to Complete Happiness              (E.J.Tyler)

1. Man desires to be happy

As we look out on the world in which we live, as we listen to the daily reports of what is happening around the globe day by day, as we observe what occupies most of the time and space in news bulletins, it is obvious that it is bad news that holds the field. There is a great deal of unhappiness in our world. Consider what occupied most of the news on television that you have recently viewed. Most of it would have been news of things that are causing many people unhappiness and much sorrow. It could be some great accident, or the killing of someone, or the ongoing wars in trouble spots of the world, or some natural disaster, or whatever. And yet it is equally obvious that every man and woman has a deep desire to be happy. It is a tremendous paradox in our world, that every man and woman is born into the world with the desire to be happy, and yet so relatively few gain the happiness they naturally seek. We ought therefore give real thought to our desire for happiness, which amounts to a calling to it, and how it is to be attained despite our living in a world little conducive to happiness.

2. The varied images of happiness 

There are many notions about happiness which people unconsciously pick up from various sources. Everywhere there is advertising, and advertising in itself is good because it enables people to know what services are being offered, and it enables those who offer the services to make headway in their enterprises. Just how products and services are advertised is another matter, and there is plenty of advanced thought and technology devoted to tricking customers into thinking that happiness will be theirs if the product is bought. And so notions of happiness become widespread that are hollow, such as that happiness lies in wealth, or notoriety, popularity, good looks, constant good health, power and sway over others, and pleasure of various kinds. Consider the car that is advertised. It is a beautiful car, and next to it is a young woman of attractive looks, and it leads to further images that suggest a successful career. It is insinuated that by buying the car the purchaser will gain happiness from possessing wealth, pleasure and influence. The images are lodged in the imagination of the viewers and there they do their silent work of suggesting notions that are never evaluated. The images are accepted and the notions about happiness which they suggest are silently embraced. It reminds us that the mind of man must rule his imagination and not be governed by it.

3. Happiness will not come simply from having what we want  

The fact is, of course, that a degree of happiness does come from these things. A certain kind of happiness comes from possessing material means because it gives a person security and various options.  Pleasure brings a certain kind of happiness, as does being in a position of influence. Indeed it is probably true to say that without some of these things in life it would be difficult to be happy - difficult but not at all impossible. There are prudent and deeply religious people have attained happiness without these things. However, examples such as those I have mentioned suggest to us that happiness comes from possessing what we have set our hearts on. But obviously this is not enough because we could set our hearts on things which will bring us happiness that is very short lived and hollow. In fact, a person could set his heart on something which he imagines will bring him happiness but which he finds brings unhappiness when he possesses it. A drug addict thinks that the drug will bring him happiness, but in fact it brings unhappiness. If I set my heart on making plenty of money with the scarcely conscious and poorly thought-out notion that simply having money will bring me happiness, I may end up with a lot of money, but disappointed and unhappy. It will be the same with mere pleasure and being in positions of influence and status. In the process of pursuing these goals under the impression that they will bring real happiness other things that are critically necessary for happiness could be entirely neglected, and some things could be pursued which will actually bring great unhappiness. Let us think of a famous actress, say, Marilyn Monroe. She was a great celebrity for her looks and her style, and yet she gradually sunk into drug abuse and finally committed suicide. She sought happiness in things that could not bring much of it, and in the process followed a path that brought with it unbearable unhappiness. I could be suffering  from someone having greatly insulted me, and I may unconsciously imagine that I will be happy if only I can get revenge for that and insult that person in my turn. Many people imagine that revenge for wrongs that have been done will bring happiness. If not revenge, it could be envy that is motivating a person’s quest for happiness. The trouble spots of the world are instances of this. These are not the paths to happiness, but many are under the illusion that they are. So it is possible to be very mistaken over what will bring happiness in life.

4. Doing what is right brings happiness

Indeed, the question of human happiness has been one of the great and perennial questions in the history of man. Philosophers have grappled with it, as have the founders of the great religions. Buddha centuries before our Lord set out on a quest for happiness and finally arrived at the conclusion that it lies in detachment from all desire and in attaining enlightenment, or nirvana. One of the leading philosophers of our day, an Australian by the name of Peter Singer is a utilitarian, which is to say that he thinks the moral thing is simply whatever is useful in bringing the greatest happiness to the most people. Apart from allowing something immoral to be done in order to achieve something desirable, this theory does not determine in what this happiness consists. It is the common experience of mankind that we all want to be happy, but the perennial question is, what will make us happy? It is not enough to say that morality consists in doing what brings happiness to most. What is true happiness? Well, our own experience suggests a few things, quite apart from what God has revealed. As I have already said, sooner or later most of us learn that pleasure alone will not bring happiness, nor will mere possessions, nor will authority and power of themselves. Often these things bring anxiety and worry. What most of us learn is that by acting in accord with our conscience, our sense of what is right, we will be happy even if it causes inconvenience and great difficulty. We find too that when we do what we know is wrong we are not happy, unless we succeed in blocking out the voice of our conscience. That is to say, our sense of what is right points the way to true happiness.

5. How do we know what is right?

The problem is that very often we are not at all certain what is the right thing to do. The judgment of our conscience, if left to itself, is often uncertain. If we are honest with ourselves and have a healthy awareness of the limitations of our own sense of what is right, we will be saying what the Ethiopian said to Philip when Philip asked him if he was understanding the Scriptures he was reading. The Ethiopian answered, how can I unless some man show me? We will not know what is right, we will not know the path to true happiness, unless God sends us someone to show us. He has sent that person. It is his only-begotten Son. He is the way to happiness, he is the truth about it, and he is the life which brings happiness. Christ is the embodiment of all that is right and good and holy because he is God himself incarnate. If doing what is right is the path to authentic happiness then we must look to the person of Jesus and contemplate him because he alone knows fully and entirely what is right, and he is the perfect embodiment of all that is right. But the happiness he embodies is not the happiness promised by the world or which the masters of this world regard highly. It is a different happiness and for this we must look to the teaching and the example of our Lord. No one was as profoundly happy as the Lord Jesus, but it was a happiness able to be present in the midst of the worst of sufferings. That opens up an extraordinary light. It is possible to be happy amid suffering.

6. Christ’s teaching and example on happiness  

Our Lord’s charter and statement of happiness is contained in the Beatitudes. Blessed, fortunate, happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the cause of right, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven. All of these pointers show the way to the happiness our Lord possessed and which he promises to those who follow in his footsteps. They can be seen as the fulfilment of the happiness promised by God in the Old Testament to his chosen people. He pointed to the promised land and to his friendship and protection, and time and again he threatened to take it away from them if they persisted in their infidelity to his commandments. Our Lord promises a new and much greater promised land, life in God now and forever hereafter. The beatitudes describe the path to this, they set forth what was important for the heart of our Lord, what he put store on.

7.  Some modern findings on happiness   

It is interesting to note the result of work that researchers have done on happiness. On July 3, 2006, the Washington Post reported on a study published in the Science journal in which researchers concluded that people with above-average income are barely happier than others, and in fact they tend to be more stressed. According to the Washington Post, an abundance of data over the last years shows that once personal wealth exceeds a certain very limited level annually, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction. More information on the subject comes from Scotland, where researchers from Aberdeen University concluded that job satisfaction is the key to personal happiness. In respect to job satisfaction, in the June 30 report in the Scotsman, leading researcher Ioannis Theodossiou said that job satisfaction does not exclusively depend on wages, though this does have an important role. Other factors such as job security and control over working hours also play an important role in determining satisfaction, and therefore personal happiness.

8.   Sanctifying our work and doing God’s will  

The point to notice is that researchers have found that in some way our work in life is connected with one’s happiness. Of course it is obvious that if one has good work, satisfying work, work that remunerates well, and so forth, these elements of our work will contribute to our happiness. But Christian teaching has something to say about this. It is that we are placed on this earth by God to do his will and his will is embodied in the work in life which we are called to do, our responsibilities and duties. Our happiness will in large measure come from sanctifying our daily work and doing it for God and doing it well for him. It is true that we work in order to live, but there is a deeper sense in which one may say one lives in order to do one’s work. Our Lord often referred to the work that had been given him to do, and at the end he said that he had completed the work he was assigned by his heavenly Father. Our Lord’s profound happiness would have consisted very largely in the communion with his heavenly Father that was maintained in the midst of his daily work. He was doing the will of his Father and giving himself over to it. On one occasion too our Lord said in reply to Pharisees who were criticising him that “My Father is working, and so therefore do I.” God is always at work and the work that is his is the work of creation and redemption, and this is ultimately ordered to his glory. All this means that our happiness derives from doing the will of God and in that way contributing to his glory. This was very much the basis of our Lord’s happiness.

9. Happiness in the midst of suffering  

On the basis of doing God’s will in union with Jesus it is possible to be happy in the midst of suffering. We hear of priests and bishops who are arrested and imprisoned and spend years in that situation in China. They have had their best years cut off and their freedom entirely taken away. But in their confinement they are doing the work that God wants them to do in that situation, and doing it in union with Jesus, knowing that their work such as it is will bear fruit in him. They are doing God’s will and witnessing to the Faith. Their happiness remains. During the last few years of the life of Pope John Paul II we saw him suffering greatly from illness of various kinds. But he knew that was the situation God had placed him in and that situation manifested the will of God. He had his work and it was to offer up his sufferings in union with the crucified Jesus. He attained joy in the midst of suffering.

10. Union with Christ in doing God’s will      

If we wish to embark on a life of happiness, the best thing is to set aside the pursuit of happiness as such and to seek to do the right thing. The pagan philosopher Aristotle taught that it is impossible to be happy without being virtuous. We cannot be happy if we are not doing the right thing. We know what is right by looking and listening to Jesus. We will do what is right by following his path in union with him. He is the key to happiness. He sets out the path to happiness in the beatitudes which ask of his disciples that they be detached from everything and totally attached to him and to his work. We were made to know and love him and to follow in his path of doing the will of the Father in the midst of our daily responsibilities and work. The deepest happiness attainable in this life will come through the deepest possible union with our Lord in constantly endeavouring to do God’s will in our daily life and in our work in life. Our complete happiness will come hereafter in heaven when we are united to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit entirely and given over entirely to his divine will. It is in the glory of God that the happiness of man lies, and Jesus is the path to God’s glory.


Postscript:  I invite you to read the following article by Andrew Mullins:

Virtue rediscovered  by Andrew Mullins | Friday, 13 July 2007

After an eclipse which has lasted decades, modern psychology says that happiness comes from living a virtuous life.

Two of the biggest names in modern psychology are focusing their work on the development of virtues. Their work validates the Aristotelian vision of character, of the human person brought to maturity by virtues understood as good habits. The virtue-based model underpinned upbringing in the West for almost 2,500 years… until child rearing lost its way several decades ago.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, under the auspices of the Values in Action Institute, have produced a major work which is an analytical framework for discussion of character which they define as a composite of positive traits or habits. Seligman is a past president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania. His fame was established by groundbreaking work on resilience for young people. Peterson is professor of psychology at University of Michigan. Together they make a formidable psychological duo. Their work is entitled Character Strengths and Virtues. It was published by Oxford University Press in 2004.

Their avowed aim is to "reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry and societal discourse". They state, "We believe good character can be cultivated, but to do so we need conceptual and empirical tools to craft and evaluate interventions."

Character Strengths and Virtues is comprehensively researched, draws together major authors in the field, and all importantly, is clinically oriented. The importance of this work must not underestimated. It is indeed a modern day Nichomachean Ethics.

Virtue: a philosopher's gift to his son

Some 2,500 years earlier Aristotle produced his Nicomachean Ethics, one of the great texts of Western civilisation. It is named after his son, Nicomachus, for whom the book is said to have been composed. It laid down the principles followed by practically every study of business, medical and legal ethics up to our own day. But it is much more than even this. It is a systematic demonstration of what fulfills a human being, of what makes a human being happy. It draws a direct line, demonstrated from philosophical foundations, between virtuous conduct and happiness in life. If one accepts Aristotle’s reasoned first principles about the nature of man, his argument is irrefutable.

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle outlined the path all human beings must follow if they wish to be happy. Clearly he regarded this as the greatest gift he could give his son. The work hinges on the crucial link between habit and virtue: "Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit".

Aristotle realised too that we need to become experts at fostering virtue. He wished to teach his son how to raise his own children well, emphasising the importance of building habits in the early years of a child’s life,

"It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference."

It is difficult to overestimate the contribution to Western thought of Aristotle. He was the tutor of Alexander the Great… but his fame should not hinge on the achievements of a hyperactive pupil. As the Britannica puts it, Aristotle "perhaps more than any other thinker has characterised the orientation and content of all that is termed Western Civilisation." High praise indeed. The man who never lifted a sword contributed more to the civilisation than his student who never lost a battle and united the known world.

Aristotle’s thought was so revolutionary and original that his coming utterly changed the course of civilisation. Our contemporary world would be very different place had he not lived. The great German poet Goethe described his work as "a pyramid rising on high from a broad base on earth", thus stressing that his philosophy was founded on the rock of reality but reaching to celestial insights.

This intellectual colossus was also regarded as a kind and affectionate man. There are references in his will to the happy family life he had enjoyed. He provided with solicitous care for his children and servants. He paid tribute to Herpyllis, his wife, for the "constant love she has shown me". It is no surprise that this wonderful man wished to leave to his son guidelines for a happy life, as a precious legacy.

Virtue is not Victorian

Nevertheless Aristotle's notion of virtue has had more than its fair share of detractors. Virtue has had a bad name ever since the Victorian era. Mud sticks. Time magazine some years ago coined the disparaging phrase "the virtue industry" referring among other writings to the much publicized Book of Virtue of William Bennett, a former US Secretary for Education. This best-seller was light on theory and did little to win over the hearts and minds of the unconverted.

All too often even those who write about virtue have a woolly understanding of the word. They use the term interchangeably with values, as if virtue had nothing to do with established behaviour and instead belonged with values back in the realm of good intentions. And while contemporary philosophy has developed a niche area of study called virtue ethics its proponents have won scant recognition in the plethora of mainstream parenting books. But Seligman and Peterson have done what a thousand philosophers could not do; they have elevated discussion of virtues to a clinical basis through an evidence-based methodology.

Seligman and Peterson identify six umbrella virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, humanity and transcendence and a further list of character strengths subordinate to the virtues. It is no coincidence that their list resembles core virtues of the various traditions of man. For example the four cardinal virtues of prudence (sound judgement), justice, temperance, and fortitude that date back to Socrates and Plato align closely with the six of Seligman and Peterson. Possibly the Greeks would have rolled wisdom, humanity and transcendence into prudence, which Aristotle described as the "power of forming right judgements".

Under the six virtue headings the authors drill down to 24 character strengths, or stable traits of character. For example, wisdom is the umbrella virtue for creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective. The authors suggest that one can further descend to what they call "situational themes", habits manifesting the character strengths in specific circumstances. The whole process is thus from the abstract to the specific habits that manifest the virtues.

They are at pains to remind us that theirs is not the final word, but the work is most impressive nonetheless. Major sections in the book discuss aims and methodology of the project, the character strengths in detail, and assessment processes. Chapters on each character strength are the work of contributing experts in their own specific fields. Discussion of each strength follows a standard template: definitions, traditional approaches, measures, benefits, manifestations, cross-gender and cross-cultural variations, interventions for fostering, areas for future study, and bibliography.

Both the Nicomachean Ethics and Character Strengths and Virtues go to lengths to explain that virtues are deeply rooted habits of action, not wishful thinking or nice sentiments. Both argue that good habits can be cultivated and that these habits are foundation for the happiness of the individual. Aristotle summarises the general argument of his work in once sentence: "Happiness is the reward of virtue." Seligman and Peterson reflect an identical vision, "This handbook focuses on … the strengths of character that make the good life possible." May mankind be richer, and happier, for this rediscovery.

Andrew Mullins is headmaster of Redfield College, a school in Sydney for boys in Years 2 to 12. He is the author of Parenting for Character.