Issue 3 Spring 2014


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From the Directors

Issue #3, Sprint 2014

At the heart of Christian spiritual life, of course, is love: God’s love for us, and our love for him and for one another. Jesus is repeatedly asked in the gospels what the greatest commandment in the Law is. His answer, again and again: “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole of the Law and the prophets, says Jesus, comes down to this.

Reflect with me briefly on the latter commandment — the commandment to neighbor love—and its connection to happiness, the theme of this issue of The Table.

The commandment comes from Leviticus 19, where it occurs at the end of a long list of commandments prescribing how the Israelites are to treat one another. They are to: leave extra on their fields for the poor and sojourner; not steal from or lie to one another; pay their laborers promptly; not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; do no injustice in juridical matters, showing no partiality to rich or poor; not slander the neighbor nor take his life; not hate the neighbor in one’s heart; and more. Then, at the end of the list, comes the commandment to neighbor love, apparently summarizing all that has come before: “in sum, love your neighbor as yourself.”

In Leviticus, then, loving the neighbor as oneself is about treating one another in the ways prescribed by these commandments: assuring that one another’s sustenance needs are met, that all are secure against harms, that the vulnerable are treated with dignity, and that all have a place in a just and harmonious community. To love the neighbor is to seek her inclusion in such community.

Israel’s writers had a word for such community: shalom. Shalom, for them, is a communal state of well-being or wholeness in which neighbors treat one another in the above-described ways. Leviticus 19’s love commandment, therefore, is a commandment to treat the neighbor in ways that conduce to her shalom.

Now for the connection between love and happiness. For happiness, in the biblical tradition, is a deeply communal notion: It is a byproduct of immersion in shalom community. It’s what happens to one when one lives in community in which there is enough of life’s basic goods, in which there is justice and dignity for all, both weak and strong, in which all care for and delight in one another. And love, as we’ve seen, is about being an agent of shalom to those around you: it’s about nurturing, protecting, and spreading this sort of shalom community. Love, then, draws us into shalom, and shalom draws us into happiness. Love, shalom, and happiness: the three are deeply intertwined.

There is another interesting connection worth noting, this time between happiness and our focal theme this year at the CCT, “psychology and spiritual formation.” For modern psychology has accumulated considerable wisdom about the ways of shalom: about how to treat one another with dignity, how to find our way into harmonious relationship, how to forgive, how to show gratitude, how to recover from harms, how to help the burdened, and more. Modern psychology has much to teach us about how to help one another into shalom community. Therefore it has much to teach us about happiness.

In the issue to follow, you’ll find further reflections on happiness and its connection to themes in the biblical tradition, psychology, and other sources of wisdom too. Enjoy.


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Christian Happiness

Wanting What is Truly Worth Wanting

What is true happiness, and how can we obtain it?

What do we all want?

In a world deeply fragmented by religion, class, ethnic/racial tensions, linguistic divides, disparities in wealth, unequal access to education and basic health and safety resources, what do we all share?

We all want to be happy.

All ancient paths to happiness assume that the good life—eudaimonia (flourishing) in Greek, felicitas (felicity) in Latin, nirvana/moksha (liberation from spiritual suffering) in ancient Sanskrit—advise an attentively moral way of life that yields personal satisfaction and contentment from a life well-lived even when outward circumstances are untoward. Happiness then is enjoying a well-ordered life. It is a psychological state of serenity that comes with exercising wisdom in all things. To put it sharply, a wise life is pleasurable and it enables flourishing in its various forms.


Against many moral-spiritual offerings, the American marketplace currently proposes a materialist notion of happiness from which moral, spiritual, and public considerations are eliminated. I would characterize it as having what you want, when you want it, and in the amount that you want it, understood in material terms often focused on money, sex, and power (recognizing that money and sex are about power). Market forces and exceptional technological prowess have now established novelty, convenience and efficiency as crucial American values to maximize what Thomas Jefferson famously called “the pursuit of happiness.” Prizing novelty, convenience and efficiency now shapes American expectation of immediate gratification rather than valuing discerning judgment that the ancient Platonists, Stoics, Aristotelians, and the Buddhists all assumed is necessary to become excellent persons who will flourish emotionally and materially.

In discerning what happiness is, we seem to be facing a choice. Either the good life is a wisdom-driven life led by principles and character strengths that must be carefully cultivated from childhood, or it is that set of skills which enable us to master the forces of nature and society that can marshal against our getting what we want, when we want it, and in the amount that we want. The choice here is between thinking of happiness as either having to do with our spiritual life, or with adventitious good that we hope to acquire. Either it is about the quality of our life or our skill at negotiating the culture in which we live. My own belief is that this is a false choice, because the caliber of who we are cannot but affect how successful we will be at negotiating the world. Conversely, living in adequate circumstances of health, wealth, safety, and salutary companionship free the spirit to focus on the quality of one’s character and how we impact others as we negotiate the world around us.


From Augustine’s perspective, if happiness is the contentment of living an intentionally virtuous and well-examined life but one is ignorant of or resists that truth—thinking, for example, that happiness is the external pleasures wrought by money, sex, and power—one will never be happy because these transient pleasures cannot last, and Augustine began his reflection by observing that we all want happiness to last. So, he concludes that some people are deluded about what truly makes for a good life. Though people may say they want to be happy, if they do not understand that true happiness depends on wisdom that comes from within rather than possessions that come from without, they carry around a counterfeit notion of what we all truly want. They are self-deceived, having turned away from what truly happifies to follow a dead-end path that may temporarily please but will ultimately fail. Think of food, sex, and thrill, for we only want these over and over again. Long-term satiety is beyond their reach. Even more pointedly, think of the American Airlines drink napkins that say “Coca-Cola is Happiness.” It’s not only a lie. It’s insulting. Such slogans are silly if not pernicious for they are designed to drag us down to the level of soft drinks in order to get our money. Personally, I don’t even like Coca-Cola. It’s too sweet.

Against this dubious separation of the pleasures of a morally good life from the pleasures that come from enjoying material goods, Augustine proposed that happiness is having everything you want and wanting nothing wrongly (De Trinitate 13.8). Here we are at the crux of the Christian doctrine of happiness. Augustine, along with other ancient moral philosophers, believes that to pin happiness on material pleasures disconnected from the psychological pleasure that we derive from living excellently fails to value the genuine pleasure that comes from living graciously, gently, courageously, magnanimously, or (as the Buddhists would say) rightly. This may seem like a dualism that divides spiritual pleasure from sensuous pleasure, but I think that division is simplistic. I think it better to conclude that sensuous pleasure—pleasures of the body—divorced from enjoying a well-ordered moral life is problematic. Bodily pleasures are not to be scorned but they do need to be monitored. With this single terse sentence, Augustine set the standard for the western theological tradition that the happy life is grounded in the moral life, as a document like the Ten Commandments suggests.


Today in North America we are in an individualist culture that has severed the ancient bond between the moral life and the happy life and with the Augustinian–Thomistic bond between God and happiness on the grounds that happiness is having what we want and wanting it rightly.

Because Augustine was influenced by Stoicism and Neo-Platonism, he identified the personal skills needed for happiness in terms of character strengths. Basic to personal strength is self-mastery that requires self-control not control of others (De Trinitate 13.17)—as the desire for “money, sex, and power” does. So, my friends, even if the stark choice between a morally pleasurable life and a life devoted to temporal pleasures is an overly simplified construal of happiness, we are faced with a decision about what happiness truly is. The difference between the spiritual and the materialist proposals is, it seems to me, that Augustine and the ancient moralists are thinking in a context that is far larger than self, unlike the context that now characterizes individualist societies like ours. Communally oriented cultures of Asia do not suffer this problem. Convinced that the happy life properly understood is a well-ordered life oriented toward that which is truly good—not only for ourselves, but for the community—does not separate personal desire from the web of mutually interdependent relationships that enable society to flourish.

Happiness for Augustine depends upon mastering one’s desires that guide an ordered life that is far more likely to eventuate in flourishing on all levels than is a disordered life. It is not a matter of chance or of seizing an opportunity. It is not a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It is not just a matter of knowing the right people in the right places. Nor is it something adventitious, external to us. Happiness is not something that one receives, or that accrues to one by virtue of successfully manipulating the environment so as to control it. For despite technology and medicine’s ability to control more than ever before, in truth there is much that we cannot control in this life: catastrophic illness, injury, social and economic downturns, the devastations of war and climate changes as well as accidents of birth belie our pretense of power to bend the world to our will. No, for Augustine, Christian happiness is more under our control than reliance on circumstance allows for we can prioritize wanting exalted things and nothing can negate our enjoyment of living such an excellent life.


Lacking basic creaturely well-being can be spiritually corrosive. It can be degrading and anxiety producing, and can distract from tending to the quality of one’s actions and their impact on others. That is, creaturely disadvantage and deprivation may deter one from discerning what is truly worth wanting. Greed may lurk in all of our hearts, but serious deprivation can activate that greed in exceptional degree. Poverty forces people to focus their energies on fighting for financial and physical survival and may crowd out space for the examined life, which is necessary for moral-spiritual flourishing.

Unstable family life cannot easily train the young in the skills needed to benefit from education and to sustain constructive relationships. Further, creaturely deprivation can cultivate character weaknesses: greed, as noted, reflexive anger, contempt, xenophobia, anguish, despair and self-righteousness that are socially isolating. In short, physical well-being provides a floor upon which psychological well-being is enhanced and psychological well-being enables one to strengthen one’s intellectual and spiritual strength for moving ever more deeply into life with God that in turn strengthens one’s ability to master untoward desires.

Creaturely security allows the mental and emotional space to attend to the quality of one’s life, or as Augustine puts it, attending to what it means to know, love, and enjoy God. Yet even if a comfortable material floor is needed to be able to tend to the quality of one’s spiritual desires, it does not assure that one will be interested in doing so because in order to want what is truly worth wanting we need to be able to discern what is truly worth wanting and what is not. That is why valuing moral-spiritual goods above material goods has a point.


Happiness from a Christian perspective entails having what we want and what is truly worth wanting. In a materialist and individualist culture like the U.S., how are we to learn to distinguish between what is truly worth wanting and what is not? American culture no longer enjoys the support of moral philosophical assumptions that enabled Augustine and Aquinas to rely on the desire for moral excellence as an alluring category that brings satisfaction and contentment to one’s life. Perhaps it was never so. By the same token, it is interesting to note that the value of spiritual self-cultivation has reemerged over the past forty years, although not necessarily in the Christian form that focuses on God or that addresses the Augustinian point that a serious Christian teaching on happiness must include learning to want what is truly worth wanting. My point here is that if we need training in how to cultivate the best life, we need guidance and practice.

For guidance in discerning what is truly worth wanting I am particularly drawn to the commandments of the Older Testament, not only the famous ten which are direct but many more whose moral guidance encourages formation of salutary dispositions, for these are essential to learning to want well. They articulate not a vague general notion of life with God but give specific shape to it through guidelines for the actual texture of that life. For example, the command to leave the corners of a field unharvested, and the injunction not to strip your vineyard bare of fallen grapes but to leave them for the poor (Leviticus 19:9–10) intend to cultivate generosity and public mindedness. The command to return lost articles to their owner (Deuteronomy 22:1–3) cultivates neighborliness that enables healthy stable communities. The command to construct the roof of a house with a parapet to protect from harm any worker who goes up there (Deuteronomy 22:8) cultivates active concern for employees as does the command not to withhold the wages of a day laborer overnight (Leviticus 19:13). The command that permits taking eggs from a nest but not the mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:6–7) cultivates ecological sensitivity and concern for the future. These and many related commands cultivate socially oriented dispositions much as Aristotle named salutary character traits (although he does not specify concrete practices that teach us how to practice them). These public-spirited commandments form spiritual appetites the exercise of which advances both the moral-spiritual life that God wants for us and the public good, that God also wants for us, from which those who practice them derive deep contentment and satisfaction. Personal pleasure in this regard and promoting societal well-being are central to the Christian life.

My proposal for happiness in the Christian life then is that most biblical commandments as well as the guidance offered by the Bible’s prophetic tradition and wisdom literature, are not perfunctory rules but rather pinpoint specific actions the practice of which crafts a public-spirited lifeway that cultivates emotional maturity, insight, caring and generosity. Biblical commands understood broadly rather than perfunctorily teach us to want well and to have what we want: both spiritual and material flourishing for us and for others.

In turning to the Younger Testament, I think the text that treats our topic specifically is the Gospel of John. It adds two important elements to our discussion. Despite its dualism that divides those who follow Jesus from those who do not, this Gospel has a teaching on happiness very like what I have been arguing for here. It is named as eternal life. That is, John assures us that happiness is to be found in this life in obedience to the call of Jesus. We do not have simply to withstand this “vale of tears” until we cross over as Augustine later believed. The other element that John adds is that eternal life is lived in the company and with the encouragement of friends. That is, happiness in the Christian life is lived with the help of the church, the keeper of liturgy and scripture.

Happiness in the Christian life requires allowing oneself to be shaped and nurtured for eternal life in this world in the company of friends committed to the same goal. What I am saying is that you are engaged in cultivating that life with and for one another every day, in every class, at every sporting event, at every meal. I urge you to cherish this gift as you learn how to advance eternal life not only within your own community, but in every community that you will ever touch.

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In The Dark

Aaron Kheriaty

Depression, Dark Nights, and the Virtue of Hope

Depression is often misunderstood. Many people mistakenly think it nothing more than intense or prolonged sadness, when in fact it’s a complex illness that can profoundly impair a person’s mental and physical functioning.

Those who are afflicted with this disorder often suffer in silence, unrecognized by others. If someone is diagnosed with cancer, this person is typically flooded with sympathy from family and friends, with an outpouring of support from their local church community. Rightly so. But if someone suffers from depression, this person probably receives, at best, a few well-meaning but ineffective attempts at sympathy from family or close friends, but often without real understanding. There’s rarely public mention of the problem due to the broader cultural stigma against mental illness.

I am convinced that our Christian tradition has something important—indeed, indispensible—to offer those suffering from depression. The medical and psychological sciences have taught us much about depression, but the full story of this affliction is more complicated. Depression is a multifaceted problem that cannot be fully accounted for by a disease-based model alone. In addition to biological and psychological factors, depression is often caused and influenced by various social, cultural, and, yes, spiritual factors. Because it is multifaceted, depression requires several complementary perspectives to adequately understand, address, and cure it.

My approach to depression begins with the premise that the human sciences (neuroscience, medicine, psychology) are in harmony with the theological sciences (philosophy and theology, sacred scripture, and the tradition of the Church, the writings of the Church Fathers and Saints). Our task is to integrate insights from all these sources in order to understand depression. Our understanding of something like depression can be much more complete if we draw upon insights from medicine and psychology on the one hand, and from our Christian tradition on the other.

In a 1993 address to a group of psychiatrists, Pope John Paul II said:

“By its very nature your work often brings you to the threshold of human mystery. It involves sensitivity to the tangled workings of the human mind and heart, and openness to the ultimate concerns that give meaning to people’s lives. These areas are of the utmost importance to the Church, and they call to mind the urgent need for a constructive dialogue between science and religion for the sake of shedding greater light on the mystery of man in his fullness.”

In a 2003 address on the theme of depression, John Paul II said that depression is always a spiritual trial:

“This disease is often accompanied by an existential and spiritual crisis that leads to an inability to perceive the meaning of life.”

He goes on to stress how both professionals and non-professionals, motivated by Christian charity and compassion, can help those with depression:

“The role of those who care for depressed persons and who do not have a specifically therapeutic task consists above all in helping them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, interest in the future, the desire to live. It is therefore important to stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved.”

Depression, Soul, and Body

Depression is a complex condition that affects more than just a person’s emotions; it impairs one’s cognition, one’s perceptions of the world, one’s physical health and bodily functioning.

The medical model that characterizes depression as simply a “chemical imbalance in the brain” is true but also incomplete. Neurobiological and genetic factors do play a causative role; but psychological, interpersonal, behavioral, cultural, social, moral, and indeed, spiritual factors also play a role.

Medications and other biological treatments have an important therapeutic role in many cases. And of course, so does psychotherapy when it is provided by competent, sensitive, and skilled professionals. These therapeutic interventions should be integrated with spiritual support and spiritual direction, with a life of prayer and the sacraments.

My approach to healing is grounded in the conviction that to fully know ourselves as human beings, we must know Jesus Christ. In my own Catholic tradition, the Second Vatican Council taught that the truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. Our Christian faith shed’s light on this deeply human problem of depression, which seems to afflict one’s soul as well as one’s body.

In the Apostles’ Creed, Christians profess faith in the “resurrection of the body.” We are neither disembodied souls nor simply material bodies. Rather, in each human person there is a substantial unity between soul and body, between spirit and matter. This Christian perspective is consistent with experimental findings from modern science. Modern medicine has shown that there is a profound connection between the mind and the body: what affects the one has profound effects on the other.

Depression vs. The Dark Night

We need to understand depression in relation to the spiritual life. It is important to distinguish depression from moral or spiritual disorders like sloth, or what the early Church Fathers called the deadly sin of acedia.

We should also distinguish it from the dark nights of the senses and spirit that John of the Cross and other Christian mystics have written about. I think most Christian therapists have had the experience of patients who prematurely “spiritualized” what were actually more psychologically or biologically rooted problems.

Speaking somewhat loosely and without awareness of the more technical meanings of the term, Christians will sometimes refer to any spiritual trial—dryness in prayer, doubts or difficulties with faith, or strong temptations—as “dark nights of the soul.” I have evaluated some devout Christian patients who interpret their depressive symptoms as a “dark night.” An exclusively spiritual interpretation of their problem may lead them away from seeking medical or psychological help. When they fail to find relief from their suffering from spiritual direction or prayer or Bible reading, they can be tempted to despair, or may feel as though God has abandoned them.

John of the Cross teaches that both dark nights (the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit) are the result of God’s increasing self-communication to the person, which purifies the soul first of sensory and then of spiritual attachments. Such a state may feel like darkness to the person, but objectively it is an intensification of divine light in the soul.

Although a sense of loss is common to both depression and the dark nights, the sense of loss is manifested differently. Depression involves the loss of ordinary abilities to function mentally and physically, and it can also be triggered by interpersonal loss, loss of a job, etc. The interior dryness of the dark night of the senses involves a loss of pleasure in the things of God and in some created things. However, it does not involve disturbed mood, loss of energy (with cognitive or motor slowing), or diminished sexual appetite—all of which are seen commonly in depression. Persons in the dark night of the senses have trouble applying their mental faculties to the practice of prayer and meditation, but do not typically have difficulty concentrating or making decisions in other areas of life. Think of Mother Theresa, who was extraordinarily effective exteriorly even while enduring dark nights interiorly.

With the dark night of the spirit there is an acute awareness of one’s own unworthiness before God, of one’s personal defects and moral imperfections, and of the great abyss between oneself and God. However, a person in this state does not experience morbid thoughts of excessive guilt, self-loathing, feelings of utter worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts—all of which are commonly experienced during a depressive episode. Furthermore, neither of the two darks nights involve changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, weight changes, or other physical symptoms (like gastrointestinal problems or chronic pain) that often accompany depression.

The Effects of Religion on Depression

There now exists a considerable body of scientific research that suggests that prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and other spiritual practices like cultivating gratitude and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression and help in recovery. This does not mean that religious faith inoculates a person against depression, nor does it mean that depression is due to a lack of faith. But it does suggest that faith may have an important role in a person’s healing.

Healing may involve restoring the depressed person’s sense of his or her divine filiation—this most beautiful and consoling truth of our existence: the truth that God is my loving Father. God the Father created me; God the Son redeemed me; God the Holy Spirit is present within me, to sanctify and heal me.


The psychiatrist Aaron Beck, famous for developing cognitive therapy for depression, did a long-term prospective study of 1,400 suicidal patients to determine which risk factors were most closely linked to suicide. Beck managed to follow these patients for the next ten years to see who survived and who eventually completed suicide. In trying to find the key differences between the survivors and those who died by suicide, Beck examined the patients’ diagnosis, the number and type of mental and medical symptoms, the degree of physical pain a person was in, social and economic factors, and so on.

The results of his study surprised some behavioral scientists. The one factor most predictive of suicide was not how sick the person was, nor how many symptoms he exhibited, nor how much pain he was in. The most dangerous factor was a person’s sense of hopelessness. The patients who believed their situation was utterly without hope were the most likely candidates for completing suicide.

There is no prescription or medical procedure for instilling hope. Hope is ultimately found in the revelation of God’s love and his promises. We can have a natural sort of hope when things in our life clearly appear hopeful. But when our situation appears or feels hopeless, the only hope that can sustain us is supernatural—the theological virtue of hope, which can only be infused by God’s grace.

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Holy and Happy?

Bruce Hindmarsh

Positive Psychology, Happiness, and the Christian life

Happiness is that thing which all desire for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Everyone wants to be happy. In recent years positive psychology has directed our attention away from a preoccupation with the pathologies of the human mind—all that which plagues us—to the empirical understanding of human flourishing. This is to join a long conversation of philosophers and theologians. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle closely identified the purpose of all human striving with happiness. This is the end toward which all human action is finally directed. However, for all the vagaries of circumstance, the main determinant of our happiness still lay, for Aristotle, in one’s own nature, and he therefore described the sort of virtuous character that would be most likely to lead to happiness.

This link between goodness and happiness, ethics and human flourishing, is something that has also been of great concern to Christian theologians. When Augustine considered what it meant to teach the Christian faith, he argued that learning doctrine had to do with so much more than receiving the intellectual content of the faith. It had to do above all with our desires being rightly directed toward their proper ends. If we rest content in what is unworthy of our ultimate desires, we remain unhappy in a kind of exile from our true homeland. The Christian faith teaches us a different way, reorienting our loves toward the true source of happiness. The story of Augustine’s introspective autobiography was of his own journey from this restlessness to rest. Human flourishing had to do with the just ordering of our loves by God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

For Augustine, a deep moral transformation by grace was the path to true happiness. This understanding was reflected also in the liturgical tradition of the Western church. Take, for example, the very Augustinian collect still prayed today on the fourth Sunday after Easter in many churches:

“O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This whole prayer aims at happiness (“true joys”) and it is full of human longing, but it recognizes profoundly the need for a deep interior transformation by grace. That is why it prays, “Grant unto thy people . . .” Transformation only comes of God’s grace. The transformation required is serious, though, and it is both moral and psychological, addressing “the unruly wills and affections.”


The chief difference between ancient and modern discussions of happiness, however, is that the ancients recognized the need for a perspective that encompassed the whole of life, and for Christians, life beyond the grave. Even Aristotle recognized that one could not become happy in a day and made clear that his discussion of happiness had to do with an entire, complete life. For Augustine this of course meant a complete human life which began in the mysterious depths of divine love and whose end was the eternal enjoyment of God forever.

In the pre-modern world where life was so precarious, one was disposed to think of happiness in more than this-worldly terms. When Augustine was writing, life expectancy was less than twenty-five years. How different today. Charles Taylor has reminded us of how, as modern people, we tend to view immanent, this-worldly goods as self evident, especially what he calls the goods of “production and reproduction”: we seek to realize our own happiness through material prosperity and achieving intimacy. For Augustine, these goods could only be good when subordinated to the transcendental good of loving God above all else. When we seek our happiness in these lesser goods, they become idols, and idols always enslave and lead to the addictive, disordering of our loves. We are left restless.

On the cusp of the modern period, John Wesley again linked moral goodness and human flourishing, believing that holiness and happiness were two sides of the same coin. Of the original state of the human person in paradise, he wrote, “By the free, unmerited love of God, he was holy and happy: He knew, loved, enjoyed God, which is, in substance, life everlasting.” This was likewise to be the condition of redeemed women and men in the new creation: “an unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in Paradise.” When Wesley was sixty-eight years of age, he preached a sermon in Dublin in which he instructed parents that they should remind their children several times a day, “He made you, and he made you to be happy in him, and nothing else can make you happy.”

And Wesley described the whole process of present salvation in terms of the recovery of this undivided happiness and holiness. As soon as the Holy Spirit reveals God’s Son in the heart, and the Son reveals the Father, “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts; then, and not till then, we are happy.” We are happy in the consciousness of being loved by God, in our constant communion with God, in the new virtues the Spirit works in us, and in the witness of the Spirit that our actions please God. Our happiness increases, says Wesley, quoting the apostle Paul, as we “grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Notice that for Wesley happiness is the original and final state of human being and, marvelously, it is something we experience even now by the grace of being united to Christ. As 1 Peter says, “Even now you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls,” and for this reason the believer is happy, filled with “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Perhaps the greatest challenge of a truly Christian psychology today is to recover and sustain this transcendent framework, and with it, a deep sense for the porous human psyche being fundamentally capax Dei—capable of God, made for a divine end, happy finally and only by sharing in God’s holiness. Holiness is happiness. What God has joined together let no man put asunder.

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Thanks! The Science of Gratitude

Robert Emmons

An Interview with the "Gratitude Guy"

In his 1863 “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” Honest Abe Lincoln entreated a war-tired nation to acknowledge and say thanks for “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties,” Lincoln wrote,“which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.” Throughout the address, Lincoln is attuned to our inclination to forget, our habits of ungratefulness, and the wounds of war. Interesting that gratitude was paramount to his approach to healing and restoring a broken nation.

Because it turns out that gratitude can do just that: the subject of a host of psychological studies over the past two decades, simply saying thanks can really heal, restore, and make you happier. UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons has been at the forefront of this research, and we asked him about the science of gratitude. A hearty thanks to him for talking with us about thankfulness.

The Table: It’s so common to think of personal happiness as pre-determined, or at least uncontrollable. That can really contribute to the feeling of being “stuck.” Can we take our personal happiness into our own hands? Is our inner state of well-being something we can control? 

Emmons: Absolutely you can control your own happiness, or none of us “positive psychologists” would be doing what we do. While there is a set range for long-term happiness, there are a number of intentional activities and attitudes we can choose that can sustainably affect our happiness. We have more control over it than we might first believe. But this does not mean that change will come easily or automatically or without effort.

How do you measure human flourishing? And how do you show that gratitude is a factor in securing a good life?

I rely on tried and true measure of flourishing—happiness, pleasant emotions, purpose in life, low levels of unpleasant emotions. I also examine social indicators like friendship, generosity, feelings of closeness and connection. On the one hand, gratitude is a strategy to increase one’s level of sustainable happiness. People are consumed by the pursuit of happiness, and gratitude is a reliable pathway to increasing one’s joy. Gratitude is also a spiritual practice. Even in their busy, distracted lives, people want to connect with their spiritual side, and gratitude offers a way to do that, incorporating it into daily life. Whether we use controlled clinical trials or survey methods, the evidence is clear: Gratitude is good for us and for society.

What is gratitude anyway? Is it an emotion? A feeling? A mood? A virtue? An action? A prayer? What are we doing when we say “thanks”? What’s a good definition of “gratitude”?

It’s all of those and more. Gratitude is a morally complex disposition, and reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice. I like this definition: Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.

It’s common to think of gratitude as an obligation—something we owe to our benefactors—but you suggest that it’s more than just an obligation. Are you saying that gratitude works for our own self-interest and well-being? 

Certainly. Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives in a myriad of ways consistent with the notion that virtue is both its own reward and produces other rewards. Gratitude takes us outside ourselves where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal. In this sense, gratitude, like other social emotions, functions to help regulate relationships, solidifying and strengthening them. Herein lies the energizing and motivating quality to gratitude. It is a positive state of mind that gives rise to the “passing on of the gift” through positive action. As such, gratitude serves as a key link in the dynamic between receiving and giving. It is not only a response to kindnesses received, but it is also a motivator of future benevolent actions on the part of the recipient. Serving these functions, gratitude enhances our own well-being in that we are built for relationships. Gratitude “reminds and binds” as one researcher pithily stated.

What if the gratitude feels empty? What if you don’t really feel thankful? How can you work toward genuine gratitude that will lead to personal flourishing?

So what? Express it anyway when it is the right thing to do. I have written about the strategy of “going through the motions.” Most people assume that emotions precede behavior. After all, we rarely do anything unless we first feel like doing it. But research on attitudes in social psychology has shown that attitude change effectively follows behavior change. That is why the simple act of saying thank you, writing a gratitude letter, or even keeping a gratitude journal can activate the feelings of gratefulness even if they were not initially present, or present in a lessened form. People will sometimes initially poo-poo the idea of trying out one of these practices, because in the absence of the attendant feeling state, the behaviors don’t feel right or authentic. But by living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live.

Is gratitude “built-in” to human nature? Are we naturally thankful? 

The capacity is there for sure. It is a universal (or at least cross-culturally recurring) response to goodness. Gratitude encircles much of what we do and who we are. Its power derives from a need that is deeply entrenched in the human condition—the need to give thanks.

I think there is the problem of goodness—the flip side to the problem of evil. How to account for beauty and goodness and kindness in the world and how to respond to this goodness. I believe that gratitude is the best approach to life. When life is going well, it allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. When life is going badly, it provides a perspective by which we can view life in its entirety.

You coach Little League and traveling baseball teams. Do you ever find yourself using the baseball diamond as a psych lab—a place to observe how certain emotions in children can lead to their well-being? Has working with children had an effect on your research interests, or your perspectives?

After coaching youth sports for nearly a decade, two observations really stand out. First, how parents respond to their kids performance, and second, the different ways that kids respond to adversity, and how it impacts their current and future performance. The two are clearly related. I see a lot of really respectful, grateful kids and that is rewarding. However, I see a lot of the opposite. Kids that are easily upset, disrespect their teammates, the game, the officials, even their coaches. When things don’t go their way, instead of taking responsibility, they play the blame game.

Almost every instance of unsportsmanlike conduct or other negative behaviors in players seems to be related to a similar cause. They invariably have critical, demanding parents (usually, but not always the dad) who put too much pressure on them to perform at a high level. They confuse effort with outcomes. They make their love and approval conditional on whether they succeed or fail. So I try to be mindful of the need to offer constant support when I am on the field with them. I don’t always succeed, but I’m improving. Working with the kids also teaches me to continue to give, even though my efforts may not always be met with gratitude on their part or their parents. Giving should not be conditional on expected gratitude, and this is a good laboratory for me to continue to learn this basic truth.

Some research has started to make a connection between gratitude and health benefits. Can saying thanks improve your physical health?

There is a new generation of gratitude researchers out there who are examining the health effects of gratitude. Some of the findings are really amazing. A host of new research studies are examining the effects of gratitude on health outcomes using state-of-the-art measures of biomarkers of health and aging. Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. It is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide. In the latest findings, gratitude has been shown to be associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), lower levels of both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (both at rest and in the face of stress) higher levels of heart rate variability (a marker of cardiac coherence), lower levels of creatinine (renal functioning), and lower levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of cardiac inflammation indicating heart disease). Grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and have higher rates of medication adherence. So, gratitude is good medicine! Given the ever-skyrocketing costs of health care this is all great news.

How do emotions, such as gratitude, factor in the integration of psychology and Christian spirituality? Is the psychology of gratitude consistent with a theology of gratitude?

The fit is a natural one. Or more appropriately, a supernatural one! Upon recognition of God’s outpourings of favor, humans are to respond appropriately with grateful affect, and gratitude is one of the most common emotions that Christianity seeks to evoke and sustain in believers. The Hebrew Bible is replete with the motif that man owes God gratitude for life, health, and sustenance. There are numerous “thanksgiving psalms” and other prayers in which the person or the community that is praying pours forth expressions of gratitude. In fact, there are no less than 150 verses in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that refer to the word “thanks” or its various cognates.

Do you think the fact that thankfulness can make us happier indicates anything about human nature or our relationship to God?

Yes, I think it indicates when we respond in accordance with who we were meant to be (i.e., grateful people), we experience more blessings and God’s favor which includes happiness and contentment. When we are grateful, we acknowledge that we have received a gift, I recognize the value of that gift, and I appreciate the intentions of the donor. We also recognize (perhaps less consciously) that we didn’t necessarily deserve or merit the benefit. When I am grateful I recognize that I have no claim on the gift or benefit I received; it was freely bestowed out of compassion, generosity, or love. When people have the attitude of gratitude, all of their life is perceived as a gift, freely given. Is this not amazing grace?

Gratitude finds wide expression throughout ancient writings and practices. What do you make of gratefulness being so central to human spirituality and religion?

So true. Virtually every religion has emphasized gratefulness or thanksgiving. It’s part of the ethical foundation of world religions that people are morally obligated to give thanks to their God and to each other. Religious traditions are able to so effectively cultivate gratitude—litanies of remembrance encourage gratitude, and religions do litanies very well. The scriptures, sayings, and sacraments of faith traditions inculcate gratefulness by drawing believers into a remembered relationship with a Supreme Being and with members of their faith community. This to me indicates that gratitude is something profoundly basic about the human condition. When we are grateful for something we consider its origins. Where did it come from, who was responsible for it, why and for what purpose does it exist, what should I do about it. These questions strike me as profoundly religious.

What are some specific practices you recommend to develop a more grateful outlook?

This is a vital question because gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline. This is the paradox of gratitude: while the evidence is clear that cultivating gratitude, in our life and in our attitude to life, allows us to flourish, it is difficult. Developing and sustaining a grateful outlook on life is easier said than done. A number of evidence based-strategies, including self-guided journaling, reflective thinking, letter writing, and gratitude visits have shown to be effective in creating sustainable gratefulness. Here are five good practices:

  1. Give away your gifts. How can I use my strengths and talents to help others? Paradoxically, we become more grateful when we become a giver rather than a receiver.
  2. Think about the bad. We associate gratitude with dwelling on the good, but recalling the worst times in our lives can be beneficial. To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. The realization that we made it through past tough times sets up a fertile contrast for present gratitude.
  3. Go through the motions. In your current life situation you may not feel grateful. But gratitude is an attitude, not a feeling that can be easily willed. If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. Grateful motions include smiling and saying thank you. By living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live.
  4. Traffic in the language of thankfulness. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance. Less grateful people are preoccupied with burdens, curses, deprivations, and complaints and their words reflect this negative focus.
  5. Overcome mental obstacles. Busyness, forgetfulness, taking things for granted, and a sense of entitlement all diminish possibilities for gratitude. Take life “as granted” rather than “for granted.” Instead of saying “I have to do this” try saying “I get to do this.” Sense that you are lucky or graced rather than deserving of good fortune. Take time to start a gratitude journal or develop other visual reminders of the benefits that surround you.

How have you incorporated gratitude into your own life? As a researcher with empirical proof that “gratitude works!” do you find yourself more aware of your inner state of thankfulness and happiness?

Yes, but that does not mean that it comes easily or naturally. I continue to research, write, and lecture on gratitude because I need to hear this message as often and as much as anyone. There is a lot of pressure when you claim to be an expert on a topic like gratitude, or optimism, or happiness, or forgiveness. Everyone is watching to see if you practice what you preach. But we are all flawed. When you study a virtue, you realize just how short you come up. You just try to keep moving forward and closer to the elusive goal.

It seems like the business-standard email sign-off is “Thanks.” How do you sign off your emails?

Sometimes “Grateful,” but usually “Gratefully yours,”…

Thankfulness is often treated in fine art, music, poetry, and literature with great depth. What artistic expressions of gratitude stand out most to you?

For me it’s music, especially worship music. Anything that reminds me of God’s amazing grace. Without an awareness of the need for grace we cannot be grateful. Gratitude involves seeing the good in our lives but also accepting or taking in the good. That’s where grace comes in. My next project is going to be on grace. I call it “Project Amazing Grace.” Stay tuned.

You’ve mentioned that you have a busy speaking schedule every year around Thanksgiving. What do you make of our nation’s almost liturgical approach to a day of gratitude? Is one day a year enough? What do you think about Thanksgiving?

In that it explicitly draws us to sources of gratitude, the holiday is unique. It is invaluable for that very reason. It is a great opportunity to staunch the flow of ingratitude that seems to come so easily or naturally in this day and age. We can recover a sense of the past and become more aware of what we have inherited individually and collectively. We often leave gratitude on the Thanksgiving table. That is most unfortunate—a wasted opportunity. I think that a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us down through the generations should be the focus of how Thanksgiving should be observed. This sort of transformational thinking can be revolutionary, and I think people will find it ultimately more satisfying and sustaining than the simple “count your blessings name them one by one” mentality that often passes for gratitude on this day. And this way of reflecting gratefully on the sacrifices of others can draw us out of our self-involved and self-contained worlds to a deeper awareness of those forces which make that very world possible in the first place.

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The Happiest Place on Earth?

Sarah A. Schnitker

While patience may be a vanishing virtue within the present culture, it is an essential component of the Christian life.

Isn’t it ironic that the supposedly “Happiest Place on Earth” is filled with so many unhappy people?

During the first year of our marriage, my husband and I bought annual passes to Disneyland. As we visited the park in our newly-wedded bliss, we were often surrounded by a contingent of decidedly unhappy people. From children crying in their strollers and teenagers bored with standing in line, to frustrated and bedraggled parents, it seemed like the only happy folks were Snow White and the seven dwarfs! (Minus Grumpy of course.) Why is it that so many people struggle to be happy even in a place where the sun always shines and service always comes with a smile? It is because Disneyland, like every other good thing in this world, requires patience to be enjoyed.

Christian theologians and ethicists have long upheld the importance of patience as a core component of virtuous character. For instance, Tertullian maintained that patience was the supreme Christian virtue and that impatience was the root of all sin.1 Scriptures present patience as a defining attribute of God’s character, which Christ’s followers should emulate as they live in community and await Christ’s second coming.2 Patience is listed as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5; it’s considered evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of a believer.

More recently, psychological scientists have begun to accrue evidence demonstrating the necessity of patience for life happiness and satisfaction. Patience is defined by psychologists as the ability to wait calmly in the face of frustration, adversity, or suffering. Higher levels of patience (as a character trait) predict higher life satisfaction, hope, goal achievement, and self-esteem, along with less depression and loneliness. Patience is not equated with passivity or lower levels of assertiveness.3 In addition, people who are more spiritual and religious typically have higher levels of patience.4

No Patience for This!

Despite the theological and scientific evidence supporting the importance of patience for spiritual and psychological well-being, many Christians do not actually aspire to become more patient. I study a variety of character strengths in my research lab. When I talk about my research, people will regularly exclaim that they have no patience at all. In contrast, I’ve never had someone say that they are completely lacking in gratitude or kindness. Why is it socially acceptable to be lacking in the virtue of patience, but unacceptable to lack gratitude or kindness?

Moral philosopher David Bailey Harned suggests that patience has become an unpopular virtue in western Christian culture since the industrial revolution. As we have become more and more able to control our natural environment, we no longer see waiting as a necessary part of life. Instead, we want everything to be instantaneous and believe that we should be able to eliminate all waiting and frustration through technological advancements. Thus, waiting, suffering, and frustration are seen as the result of technological malfunctions, and patience is viewed as a childlike and “unimaginative failure of nerve.”

This is a problem. Although our expectations have changed, life is still full of waiting (just take a look at the line for Space Mountain). To think that we can eliminate all waiting and adversity through our technological advances is hubris—a modern-day tower of Babel. In contrast, waiting and bearing frustration with patience teaches us humility as we acknowledge that we are not in control of our own lives.

Patience in Relationships

The modern rejection of patience has dire consequences for interpersonal relationships. New technologies cannot eliminate frustrating people from our lives, and we will always have to wait for others in relational contexts. For marriages to thrive, spouses must be patient with each other’s weaknesses. For children to thrive, parents must be patient in disciplining through kids’ process of growth. For a pluralistic society to thrive, people must be patient with those from different cultures with clashing values. So patience is vital for relational stability and communal happiness.

It may not be a coincidence that the first quality listed in 1 Corinthians 13 is that “love is patient.” We cannot truly love others unless we are willing to bear with them patiently. Let us take seriously the exhortation of Ephesians 4:2, to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” as we live out our Christian call to love God and love our neighbors. And not just when we’re waiting in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

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Does Worship Make You Happier?

Alexis Abernethy

Worship not only cultivates positive feelings, but it also reduces the presence of negative emotions.

Are questions of happiness or well-being relevant to corporate worship? Some would argue no: the focus of worship is to glorify God, not make humans happy.

While it’s true that glorifying God should be our focus, I wonder whether our degree of well-being influences how we engage in corporate worship, our experience of worship, and our degree of transformation in worship.

In 2008, I led a scientific study of worship, where seventy-four participants from diverse ethnic backgrounds and Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches described key transformational experiences in worship.1 The sermon was the most pivotal factor that contributed to transformation for most participants. In addition to cognitive and emotional changes, participants noted changes in how they related to their family members, friends, and their congregation.

We hypothesized that congregants would report positive emotion in response to selected worship experiences. This would include expressions of joy and happiness. And a central theory that informed our hypotheses was Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” Theory of Positive Emotion.2 She posits that positive emotional experiences expand people’s resources by broadening their awareness and encouraging new experiences and exploration. By contrast, negative emotions narrow our focus in order to respond to a potentially threatening situation. This focused response may be very adaptive in the face of life-threatening situations.

And our research findings provided support for our hypothesis that congregants would report more positive emotion in response to worship. One aspect of the Broaden and Build Theory—the “undoing hypothesis”—proposes that negative emotions may be undone by positive emotional experiences. This hypothesis was supported, as sadness was the most frequently expressed antecedent emotional state prior to a transformational worship experience.

These findings suggest that understanding the interplay between negative and positive emotion may help to illuminate how corporate worship experiences contribute to spiritual transformation. Specifically, while corporate worship may contribute to well-being by fostering positive emotion, it may also play a central role in helping people recover from negative emotions. Our participants’ descriptions suggest that this process is not simply an infusion of positive emotion, but a process where concerns and burdens are brought to worship. A process of reorientation occurs, where these concerns are placed in a broadened biblical perspective. The person experiences a shift, so that they are not solely influenced by negative emotions, but also have a sense of God meeting them in their struggle. They leave with a broadened perspective and a more positive outlook that may include attitudinal and behavioral change. These findings underscore the importance of providing space for not only positive expressions of joy and adoration in worship, but also spiritual struggle. Both of these experiences contribute to our spiritual formation and well-being.

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Happiness vs. Blessedness

James Houston

‘Happiness’ is a rather shallow term for what should be, for the Christian, ‘blessedness’.

Happiness has to do with the social world of humanity—the kind of thing that enables the Tibetans to measure the flourishing of their citizens not by the GNP but the GNH: Gross National Happiness, or Bhutan Happiness Index. Happiness, in our culture, is a sense of well-being, a sense of being at peace with each other. It’s the efficacy of socialization.

But blessedness is far richer and deeper, because blessedness means that I am blessed as I’m being transformed by the way of life that the Beatitudes define. And when we read the Beatitudes, we have much more a series of indicators of what is truly a blessed life.

We, all of us, can have unhappiness and suffering, living in a sinful world, but blessedness is transcendent. It speaks of another kingdom. It speaks of another realm. It speaks of the heavenly life.

— JAMES HOUSTON, November 2013
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Enough Is Not Enough

Christopher Kaczor

What does the research say about the link between measured success and happiness?

People often seek happiness by comparative social advantage. They believe that if they can have more fame, popularity, or power than others, then they will be happy.Perhaps the most common way people seek social advantage is through money. Many people believe and act as if the good life—the happy life—can be found through either having money, spending money, or both. But can we find lasting happiness in large salaries and lavish spending, in producing and consuming?

Scientists have actually studied this question extensively.1 In a study asking whether money can really buy you happiness, researchers found that more money can make you much happier—if you live in abject poverty. If you do not have clothes to keep you warm, if you have no food for your children, and no roof over your head, then money for these basic provisions greatly improves reported happiness.

However, once you have enough money for food, clothing and shelter, increases in money are unrelated to stable increases in happiness. When researchers compared a person making $30,000 a year, another making $100,000 and a third making $500,000, they found little difference in self-reported happiness or levels of depression. In other words, once a person has the necessities, more money—money spent in shopping as well as money in the bank—does not lead to more happiness.

So, victory over others in terms of money won’t satisfy the egoist. But what about other ways the egoist might try to find happiness aside from money? No matter what arena of competition we enter (money, power, fame, social status), the egoist will never be lastingly satisfied with winning, no matter how great the victory. If you were a musician, you might think, “if I could just have my own album that would be such an amazing achievement that I would certainly be happy.” And after your first album appears, you’re delighted! But over time the glow of seeing it for sale fades. You might then think, “If I could have the best-selling album of the year, then I’d achieve lasting happiness.” If you achieve your goal, you would probably be quite happy for a while, but before long, some other artist would take your place, and you’d find yourself dissatisfied. Finally, you might say, “Well, if I had the best selling album of all time, then I would achieve lasting happiness.”

Michael Jackson was in this very position. His 1983 album Thriller is the best-selling album of all time, more than doubling the sales of the second-best-selling album. But, even demolishing the competition, was the King of Pop satisfied?

It certainly doesn’t seem so. No, in a July 2010 Vanity Fair article, Jackson said that, following Thriller, he spent the rest of his life trying to make an album that would outsell it.2 Being number one wasn’t good enough, even for the person who was number one! As Bertrand Russell put it, “Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are.”

The final and perhaps most obvious examples of the failure of the hedonist and the egoist to find lasting happiness are the lives of celebrities. Celebrities have more alcohol than they can drink, more drugs than they can take (and still remain alive), and more willing, attractive potential partners than there is time in the day to have sex. They can, and often do, “max out” in terms of the happiness of the hedonist. In terms of egoist happiness, celebrities have money enough for palatial residences in Malibu and in Manhattan, power to make or break people’s careers, popularity such that millions of people read magazines to learn the minutiae of their lives, and fame so great that they can walk into any bar and everyone knows their name.

And yet, what does maximized bodily pleasure and maximized ‘winning’ bring to celebrities? Some of them are so deliriously happy that they end up in a tragedy of suicide. Other celebrities teeter on the brink of self-inflicted death through drug and alcohol abuse. Many celebrities end up not with deep happiness, but with divorce, legal action, and rehab.
The crash and burn examples of countless celebrities make abundantly clear the point made by Aristotle, Aquinas, and many others over many centuries:. Happiness cannot be found in bodily pleasure, money, fame, popularity, or power.

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The Pursuit of Happiness, Your Highest Good

David A. Horner

Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas on morality and happiness

To anyone with an open mind, one huge fact stands out in the history of morality: for the ancients, Christians and pagans alike, the question of happiness was primary. As they saw it, morality in its totality was simply the answer to this question. The thing was obvious; it never occurred to them to talk about it.  —Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics

A right to the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. But is happiness really something we should be pursuing—especially as followers of Jesus? Isn’t our problem, morally speaking, that we pursue happiness at the expense of doing what’s right? For many, questions like this haunt the subject of this issue of The Table. Happiness may be good for us. But is happiness good? Is it morally good?

The answers will depend on what we mean by “happiness”—and how we think about morality. A look at our past can give us some needed perspective.

These days we tend to see morality and happiness as unrelated at best, and incompatible at worst. But as moral theologian and Dominican priest Servais Pinckaers suggests, our ancestors had a very different view. Virtually everyone until the late Middle Ages (and many since), including Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Jonathan Edwards, understood the pursuit of happiness to be what morality was all about. This perspective is called ethical eudaimonism, from the Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia. Although classical thinkers differed among themselves as to what true happiness actually consists in and how one should go about pursuing it, they all agreed that pursuing happiness is what life itself—including morality—is about.

So did our forebears miss the point of morality? Did they reduce morality to feeling good? To see how they didn’t, we need a glimpse of the visions our ancestors had of happiness and morality.

Today we tend to think of “happiness” as a subjective feeling of contentment or experience of pleasure, but classical thinkers had a very different understanding. Although it is commonly translated “happiness,” the Greek eudaimonia carries none of the English term’s modern connotations. The ancients saw eudaimonia, not as a subjective feeling but an objective state of flourishing or well-being. A eudaimon life is one that expresses the highest good, the summum bonum, for human beings, and most classical thinkers understood this in terms of moral excellence and virtue. The pursuit of happiness, they thought, is a quest for that kind of life, a life of true flourishing. “It seems to me,” says Augustine, “that it is characteristic of all men to seek the happy life, to want the happy life, to desire, long for, and pursue the happy life…. The man who asks how he can enjoy the happy life is indeed asking just this: ‘Where is the highest good?’”

Where, indeed, is the summum bonum to be found? What kind of life is a truly happy one, one that satisfies our deepest desires for meaning and well-being? As did other Christian eudaimonists, Augustine was “happy” to join the universal discussion of this topic and argue that the human longing for happiness points ultimately to friendship with God, who is our true highest good. “[God] himself is the fountain of our happiness; he himself is the end of all of our longing. In choosing him, or rather, since we had lost him through neglect, in re-choosing him… we strive toward him by love, so that by attaining him we might rest, happy because we are perfected by him who is our end.” Only in relationship with God can we truly flourish, because, as Augustine famously prays, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Thinking of morality as the pursuit of happiness in this way does not lower our view of morality; it raises our view of happiness to moral significance. Our ancestors had a far richer and more significant vision of happiness than does modern culture. At the same time they also had a far richer understanding of morality. Modern views of morality focus on rules and restrictions—limits or boundaries on what we should do. As long as we don’t transgress the boundaries, on this view, what we pursue in our lives is not morally important. For classical thinkers, by contrast, our chief pursuit is what is most important, morally. Morality encompasses all of life—how and why we do all that we do. The quest for true flourishing is the pursuit of what we take to be supremely good, what we value above all else—a quest that engages our affections, our passions, and our aspirations. This is a far richer vision of morality than merely denying what is bad; it’s a life oriented to pursuing what is good.

So what goes wrong when the pursuit of happiness conflicts with doing the right thing? The problem is not that we pursue happiness, according to our ancestors; that’s a given. Our desire to flourish as human beings is as natural and essential to us as breathing. The problem is that we are seeking happiness in the wrong place. The desire is God-given, but we often settle for too little, for lesser goods. As C.S. Lewis put it most memorably:

“[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Jonny Ashcroft

Illustrator and Designer

Jonny Ashcroft is an illustrating designer currently based out of Portland, Oregon but originally hailing from Northern New Mexico. He currently presides as the Senior Designer and resident DJ to Factory North, branding and design studio. He is available for illustration projects on a freelance basis and full-service design and branding projects via Factory North.