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From Chapter One:

Being Human, Being Happy

Popular advertising slogans could lead a person to think that happiness is what human beings are made for. Coca-Cola invites us to “open happiness.” At the International House of Pancakes it is “come hungry, leave happy,” while the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain Golden Corral entreats: “help yourself to happiness.” Disneyland, since the mid-1960s, boasts that it is “the happiest place on earth.” We feed children “happy meals,” strive for a “happy medium,” admire the “happy-go-lucky” (who seem to live by the mantra “don’t worry, be happy”)—all while trying to find our own private “happy place.” Even one of our nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, asserts that human beings have an “unalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness.” Happiness, it seems, is ever on our minds (and on our stomachs, if the corporate restaurateurs are to be believed). We want desperately to be happy.

But what counts as genuine happiness? If, as corporations like Coca-Cola and Disney would have us believe, happiness can be had in the products and experiences we consume, why are we—the savviest shoppers in the history of modern advertising—notoriously unhappy?[1] At least one answer to this question can be found in poet John Ciardi’s observation, made half a century ago, that advertising and the whole of our economy are based on “dedicated insatiability.”[2] It isn’t that consumerism makes us happy by satisfying our desires for material goods or attractively packaged experiences; rather, our consumer culture trains us to be perpetually dissatisfied. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.[3] So the happiness I might feel at acquiring a new pair of shoes or a luxury vacation (increased, perhaps, if I believe I got a good deal on the purchase) is not only a kind of temporary pleasure since soon enough the newness of the product or the experience will fade and my euphoria with it. Rather, American consumer culture teaches me that the pleasure of consumption is itself in the very process of acquiring my good deal: advertisers want me, want all of us, to be addicted not to things but to the endless pursuit of things. And most of us seem all too happy to oblige.

Yet even if we concede that the happiness held out by marketing campaigns is fleeting if not false, shallow, and ultimately unsatisfying, why do we still find ourselves seduced by the promise that happiness can be ours if only we can secure the ideal job or the perfect mate, if we can just lose those excess pounds or raise successful children or have the respect of our peers? Perhaps this promise lures us because a hunger for happiness is at the heart of what it means to be human. As theologian Paul Wadell observes: “The story of our lives can be read as one unfolding search for happiness because we relentlessly pursue whatever we think will be good for us; whatever we suspect will fulfill us, delight us, bring us peace, and deepen the meaning of our lives.”[4]

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, but it has defined ultimate happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. We are created in the image of God, bearing something of the divine within us, and thus communion with our Creator—and with all of creation—is central to what it means to be fully human. Famously, St. Augustine declared that our hearts are restless till they find rest in God. The Westminster Catechism opens by asking what is the purpose of our lives as human beings, and answering with: to love God and to enjoy God forever. And St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is intimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy. And while there are many goods intrinsic to a life of happiness—food, shelter, satisfying work to do, enough money to live on, art and music and beauty of all kinds to stir our imaginations, friends and loved ones to enjoy all of these things with—the highest good and our ultimate happiness can be found, Aquinas believed, only in God.

Happiness as Gift-in-Community

But how does that work exactly? What would it look like to discover and experience complete happiness in God? For Aquinas, attaining ultimate happiness is a matter of our becoming like God in goodness. But this, too, sounds far-fetched—impossible, even (and perhaps not a little presumptuous). How can we become like God in anything?

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or take or make, something we earn or deserve or accomplish, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness is beyond our own powers and capacities. It is not, as much talk-show psychology would have it, something available within ourselves if only we would reach down deep enough to find it. Rather, genuine happiness comes to us through grace; it is a gift. “The God who wants our good,” Wadell says, “gifts us with the happiness we seek.”[5] Our lifelong task, then, to repurpose a beautiful phrase from novelist Marilynne Robinson, “is to put ourselves in the way of the gift.”[6]

The happiness we were made for, that comes to us as gift to be received rather than goal to be achieved (or interior state to be accessed) is, as Scripture makes clear, relentlessly social. This is at least one reason why seeking happiness through the exercise of individual choice in a market economy is a futile quest. In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn that God created human beings for friendship with one another and with God, and the book of Revelation describes powerfully the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—for which all of creation is destined. Thus the Bible reveals, from beginning to end, that the gift of happiness is deeply social, “ineluctably political.”[7] “Political,” in this sense, has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together. There is no human thriving, no genuine happiness apart from life lived in connection with others as the good is sought and practiced and enjoyed and witnessed to. For Aristotle, this meant that the polis is “more than a pact of mutual protection or an agreement to exchange goods and services … [it] is intended to enable all, in their households and their kinships, to live well.”[8] In Christian terms we would say that through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into a polis—the communion of saints being one way to name it—and that in the Eucharist we are nourished and sustained as a community of friends who, week after week, year after year, enact our desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to be drawn more and more deeply into the goodness of God. Yet even in the polis of the worshiping community, our attempts to “become like God in goodness” are not our own moral achievements. As we have said, all of this comes through grace and as gift.

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[1] Harris Poll Happiness Index.

[2] Ciardi, “Is Everybody Happy?,” 18.

[3] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 35.

[4] Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life, 2.

[5] Wadell, 16.

[6] Robinson, Gilead, 134.

[7] McCabe, The Good Life, 25.

[8] Aristotle, Politics, III, 9. Quoted in McCabe, 38. (Italics in McCabe).