BEDROCK to Christian faith is the conviction that to be human is to be built for happiness. St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas agree that a desire for happiness is hard-wired into human character.
But contemporary psychological researchers like Dr June Gruber at Yale University are getting a lot of attention lately with claims that happiness has a “dark side”. Dr Gruber and her colleagues note that the search for happiness as an end in itself is almost always self-defeating.
They speak of it in terms of elevated expectations that cannot always be met, and which could lead to more acute disappointment, even more intense pursuit of happiness, loftier expectations, sharper sense of loss etc.
Researchers also note that a focus on happiness, understood as positive feelings of contentment and satisfaction, can lead to social isolation. Preoccupation with our needs and happiness crowds out concern for the needs and happiness of others.
The prescription for an overzealous pursuit of happiness, as these studies see it, is moderation. Scaling back expectations, monitoring our own happiness less intently, giving up a little self-satisfaction for the satisfaction of friends and family are some of the ways that people can avoid the pitfalls of pursuing “too much happiness”.
Underneath this common-sense approach, Christian discipleship offers a deeper vision that sheds light on our contemporary understanding of happiness.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear that the happiness to which we are called by God does not match customary expectations of happiness.
The happiness – also called “beatitude” or “blessedness” – that Jesus offers is more than mere comfort, abundance of pleasure or positive feelings. The vision He offers is a paradoxical one, identified with poverty and grief, with the bestowal of mercy and the yearning for justice, with meekness and peace and purity of heart.
It is a happiness rooted, not in passing circumstances and sensations, but in communion with Jesus and His Father and Their Spirit. It is a happiness that consists of living according to the purpose for which we were made.
The Gospel Jesus proclaims is summed up in His image of the “kingdom of God”. It is a reality in which God’s will – God’s deepest desires and fondest hopes for the universe – is fulfilled.
Our purpose is to embrace ever more passionately God’s vision for the world, and to participate in Jesus’ mission to bring about the kingdom.
When we seek happiness on our own, when we make our own satisfaction and comfort the end for which we hope, we may be reinventing ourselves in novel ways, but such reframing of reality will not bring us happiness.
The good news is that the happiness Jesus promises is already ours. God already loves us. His kingdom of peace and mercy, of healing and reconciliation and joyous communion is not yet fully visible, but we can count on its ultimate completion and appearance.
The good news is that we can rejoice now, even in the midst of sorrow and obscurity, because, as Jesus reassures us, “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). By Dan Luby, CNS