Everyone, from the richest to the poorest, past to the present, has wanted to be happy. It is an obsessive, aching hunger, and might be the most asked question of my generation.
But also, people of past centuries — the musicians, the writers, artists and housewives — they asked this question, too. Well, we don’t read what the housewives wrote, but I can imagine they had their share of existential crises. Has it always been hard to be happy? Sure, old dead people wrote about pain and pleasure in their day, but it couldn’t have been this hard. We have so much available to us to self-medicate. Affluent countries, like the United States, have more money, more self-help programs and books, more food, music, therapists, churches. And with more, it seems we experience more pain. With access to so much, why don’t our attempts work? Why aren’t we flourishing and bursting with energy, love, life?
I have a few thoughts.
1. We are asking the wrong questions.
Neither our society, nor our schools, nor many of our churches have a expansive enough view of human nature to trust us with the big stuff and with big questions for ourselves. Growing up in public schools, I felt that education was accusatory and defensive instead instead of empowering. I felt generally mistrusted before I was trusted. Guilty until proven innocent. Modern education’s structure follows an anxious penal system more often than a comfortable roundtable discussion.
2. We have the wrong definitions.
Words like: happiness, success, love, beauty, life, friendship. What do they really mean? Have we stopped to consider our assumptions?
3. We don’t have the right tools, and we probably don’t know how to use them if we do.
We can start by training our emotions to love the things that should be loved and hate those that should be rejected.
4. Like an obnoxious salesman, society convinces us to want things we do not actually want.
It distracts us and teaches a false view of who “we” are and what we’re for. Advertisers try to get our attention and sell us things, telling us that what will make us happy comes from outside rather from within. That we are consumers rather than creators. Passive “Wall-E people” rather than agents of our own happiness. That success comes from wealth and image.
We’ve lost the knowledge of virtue and the art of good habits. Habituation — a term coined by Aristotle — refers to cultivating habits or actions that we do often. Habits, like biting your nails and praying before you eat, are produced by time. The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it again. Aristotle puts virtue like this: “To sum up: Virtue is about pleasures and pains; the actions that are its source also increase it, or if they are done badly, ruin it; and its activity is about the same actions as those that are its sources” (Nicomachean Ethics 21). I am often unhappy because I have little capacity for it in the first place. Virtues (including Aristotle’s old words like: wisdom, prudence, courage, continence, magnanimity) are key ingredients to growing my ability to experience pleasure.
Everyone has been raised by someone, and we’ve all been conditioned to act out certain habits, but they’re not always the right ones. “It is for this reason that a good upbringing is essential. We must learn to both act correctly and feel correctly.” (Aristotle here disagrees with those who think that becoming virtuous entails being unaffected by pleasure and pain. On his view, the virtuous person takes delight in what is fine and noble and is pained at what is shameful.)
We, soul sponges, are affected by what’s around us: media, family, advertising, education, politics, arts. So generally, unless we’re careful, we come to value what the rest of the world values. This can be good and this can also be bad. Generally, the “world” (I’m not sure what that means yet) teaches us to believe we are each someone we are not. We are taught certain habits and ways of being that are horrible for us and don’t act in accordance with who we actually are on the soul-flourishing level.
I wonder if this identity can be reshaped and reorientated with the help of some good (meaning helpful) questions like:
- What is a human?
- What does it mean to be human?
- What is living? And what is living for?
- What does it mean to be a human in a society?
- What is the good life?
- What is happiness?
- How should we then live?
Questions, by their nature, open up us up. They bury a seed and create a bloom. Questions plant roots and uproot anxiety caused by the fear of asking the question in the first place. Asking questions is the beginning and the way by which we think for ourselves and make our own lives, lives of meaning that are fitting for living, breathing, fleshy, heart-and-soul human beings. Automatons can’t be happy. Only humans can be happy. You have to have a soul and a will to be happy. And I, for one, have a lot of soul remaking to do.
So, where is this happiness? If habits are as close as a list of chores, and if habits take time to create, and if good habits are virtuous, and if virtue leads to true happiness, then happiness happens in moments, day by day. Virtue is a word of the Catholic, scholastic past and of Aquinas and Aristotle, of the Church Fathers, and also part of the very soil of life.
Nothing outside ourselves can ever make us happy, but that doesn’t mean conditioning one’s soul, one’s life, through actions, through repetition, through disciplines (read Richard Foster and Dallas Willard) and by pointing oneself toward what’s good for a person isn’t a very grace from God himself to remake us. To make us happy. Because God loves us. This, I know, is a beginning.
Image credits: flickr.com/photos/akujur5 and betablog.org/