As human beings, we were made for happiness. A longing for it is written in our human nature. It’s as inevitable as our DNA and as obvious as our nose.
And so, whether we like it or not, or whether we want to avoid it or not be hurt by searching for it, we are hard-wired for happiness. It’s the reason we were given life by God. And the way in which we pursue it is how we are defined as persons, citizens, and believers.
What is happiness? And why are there so many understandings of happiness if we are all called to seek it and live it as human beings?
As a human family, we have widespread definitions of happiness. With that observation, what are some of the ways in which humanity understands happiness?
- The emotionalist instructs us that happiness is in the unfiltered expression of emotion or in the possession of things or people that make us feel good.
- The relativist tells us that happiness is knowing that we’re always right and never have to say we’re sorry.
- An egotist informs us that happiness is asserted in getting one’s way and having power and control over other people or things.
- The utilitarian explains that happiness is only found in our hard work and personal effort.
- A fascist teaches us that happiness is about lording power over others and using violence or fear tactics to assert our will above that of others.
- The hedonist argues that happiness is lived by overindulging in pleasure or base appetites.
- A nihilist tells us that there is no order or meaning to life and so happiness is found in doing whatever we want for whatever reasons we want.
- The syncretist admonishes us that happiness is creating our own world and minding our own business.
The above definitions of happiness are sporadic and inconsistent. No one could seriously live a life by choosing one of them or by living them as a unified system. Real schools of thought, however, are given validity by the fact that they can be lived and contribute to human flourishing.
The list above, in shorter or longer time frames, all come up short. They inevitably lead to disappointment, misery, and a hopelessness over the possibility of truly being happy.
What is our conclusion? Should we give up? Is happiness only a childhood dream or the rare provenance of a select few?
All human beings are called to be happy. And so, perhaps the problem is not with happiness at all, but with the above incomplete or mistaken comprehensions of happiness?
In contrast to the definitions of our age, another way has been given to us. Unlike the false promises of an illusory happiness, this other, “most excellent way of love,” shows us that happiness isn’t just about us. Happiness depends on a proper relationship with God and our neighbor. This openness leads us to realize that happiness isn’t a synonym for pleasure, or a euphoric high, or the accomplishment of a perfect state of affairs based on our desires.
Happiness is something more. It’s about laboring for goodness in ourselves, so that we can be of greater good to others. It’s serving and helping others to see goodness in themselves and assisting them in letting it flourish.
And so, the most excellent way is given through a different list of eight things. Rather than passing philosophies of an age, this list has proven itself to have an eternal significance and has come to be called the Beatitudes. These simple declarations pave the way to true and lasting happiness. Rather than a short-cut solution, fading philosophies, or a compromised self-help guide, the Beatitudes display the challenge and course of life to be followed if we want to reach and thrive in a real and enduring happiness.
True to form, however, this challenge to be happy involves suffering. It’s a summons for us to die to vane or narcissistic aspects of our personalities and our behavior so that we can follow a path of virtue that is the best expression of who we are called to be. And so, the Beatitudes extol a poverty of spirit, sorrow over evil or loss, meekness, a hungering and thirst for righteousness, mercy, a purity of heart, peace-making, and a willingness to accept persecution for what is right.
This is the sure path to happiness that is offered to each of us. Will we accept it?
We were made for happiness. And so, let’s take up the challenge of the Beatitudes, be happy and show our world what true happiness looks like!
Fr. Jeff Kirby is currently promoting the #BeBlessedChallenge, a call for people to intentionally live the Beatitudes for eight days.