Ask a class of 7th grade boys what the purpose of life is and they’ll give you the same answer as most other people: to be happy.
This is an obvious truth that is the foundation of almost every formal system of ethics from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Christian ethics to other less formalized systems such as utilitarianism and general post-modern relativism.
If all these philosophies agree about the importance of happiness, how come we don’t all agree on how to live happily (which traditional translates into how to live morally)? Because we have different understandings of what happiness truly is.
The point of this post is to briefly explain why the path to happiness that Jesus offers is diametrically opposed to the standard offer from the world. Ultimately, the counter-intuitive method from Christ is much more accessible and satisfying than the empty promises from other venues.
I – What Happiness Isn’t
We all want to be happy. But we tend, me too, to seek it through the wrong channels. The path the world tells us is this: go to school, keep your grades up, go to college, get a great job, maybe get married, maybe have kids, do fun things, and enjoy your prosperity. I will call this external happiness.
Those are all great things. But there are two problems:
1) This model is inaccessible to most of the world’s population. If happiness is about financial security, fulfilling work, and awesome free time activities like visiting Paris and climbing rocks, then only a very small subset of human beings can even attempt to find happiness. That in itself makes this model problematic. What about the janitor mopping floors for minimum wage? What about the single-mother working two jobs to offer her child a different life? What about the sick and disabled? Or simply, what about stay at home mothers who choose to forego the illustrious career and its concurrent promise of fulfillment? And what about the truly destitute? All life includes suffering, and for many people, it includes mostly suffering. How does this external happiness relate to them? Is the blind beggar rendered permanently hopeless and miserable unless he can turn it all around? To be sure, these people do experience a high degree of misery. Also, I do not want to sound complacent toward their stations in life. Everyone deserves the chance for a decent life. The sad truth, however, is that a lot of people won’t get it. It seems to me that a truly human understanding of happiness should be accessible to every single human soul, regardless of life circumstances.
For this reason alone, external happiness doesn’t fit the bill. We all know of inspiring individuals who radiate peace and joy and who uplift others despite deep personal tragedy and suffering in their own lives. These are the people who thwart the external view of happiness and are the people to whom we should look for learning and instruction.
2) The second problem is that the unstated, underlying end or completion of this model simply doesn’t exist. When happiness is measured by how much we have attained and how much we are enjoying it, there is no end, no rest, no completion. There is always more that we could achieve, more stuff to have, more ways to win. Think about it: many of us have arrived at “adulthood” with college diplomas in hand, decent jobs, and a marriage. Yet there is never an “I’ve arrived, now I can relax moment.” Instead, we think about how to rise the ladder at work, how to make more money, get a nicer place to live, and nicer stuff to put in it too. No matter how precisely we stay on track, we never get there. The external model of happiness never finishes; it can’t be finished. It can’t be completed because it has nothing to do with a state of being; rather, it is external, hence its name. Its focus is on achievements. But achievement is an ever-shifting, never-ending staircase.
Happiness, according to the external model, is found in Olympic gold medals, doctoral degrees, and lofty titles. The problem is very few people can make it to the top and thus enjoy said happiness. And even for those who do, it is fleeting because within months usually, there arises a new top-dog with higher achievements, more honors, and more money too. Even those to appear to “have it all” often are not very happy for very long. Deep down, we know this to be true. We are familiar with too many stories of successful personalities who are miserable, who even take their own lives. It’s unspeakably tragic.
And the agony of the external model of happiness afflicts the less successful as well. Since the completion of the achievement track never comes or some of us realize that we simply won’t rise to the top, a disillusioning disappointment sets in. Bitterness is often the fruit of this “failure.”
Sometimes our response to worldly failure [or more accurately, normal life without excessive prestige] is couched in wild dreams about winning the lottery or the day we will finally “make it.” But a lot of time and real happiness can be wasted waiting for the arrival of this perfect day. As Professor Dumbledore said to Harry Potter as he gazed into the Mirror or Erised, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
I recently read a sad article written by a woman who regretted having children. In response, a honest, kind blogger explained:
“She’s probably a relatively normal woman who…wasted a large portion of her life wishing for a different reality. It’s pitiful, and wasteful, and hurtful to her children, but not much different than anyone who squanders their joy in the realities of life in favor of a dream.” [emphasis mine]
Ultimately, the external model of happiness touted by the world we live in must fail for just about everyone. Yet we cling to it blindly. I won’t pretend I’ve never pined for the day when there is just a little bit more money or when earning that top degree will finally make me feel worthy. But those are not well-spent moments. True happiness must be something more.
Coming up next: Our Lord’s alternative path to happiness