I just want to be happy.” “So long as it makes you happy.”
These are statements so commonplace that one barely notices them. It is almost like saying I need to breathe or eat or drink. Recently a well-known celebrity model was quoted in relation to a new found love: “I am just focusing on my own happiness at the moment and Lara is a big part of that. She makes me happy and that is all that matters.”
As the great scientist of the soul (and psychologist) Aristotle recognised, everything we do as humans we do in order to be happy. From the smallest to the largest choices we make in life our basic desire is that whatever we choose will make us happy.
The human person is hardwired for happiness, to seek joy, pleasure, peace, and contentment. And we want it to last, to be eternal. Unfortunately, as each of us knows only too well, while we seek happiness it seems to always elude us and even when we have those deep and satisfying moments of fulfillment they are fleeting.
Think of sporting teams that you follow. If they win a grand final or a championship game, the sense of joy, excitement and fulfillment is extreme, but within a few days thoughts are already turned towards the next game, the next season and the happiness is gone and becomes a memory.
In many of the contemporary debates about morality the idea of happiness is used as a justification for a certain position or choice, but often these are shallow notions of what it means to be happy.
St Thomas Aquinas begins his great treatment of morality by focusing on happiness and exploring the fundamental, but ultimately false ideas of what we think will make us happy. Fame, pleasure, power and wealth are among the things that we pursue, often over an entire lifetime, in the misguided view that they will make us happy.
Aquinas points out that each of these desires involves good things but none of them can be equated with true happiness. For example, pleasure is dependent on our senses. Sexual pleasure involves the senses of sight and touch, the pleasure of food and drink involves taste, the delight of beautiful objects involves sight, musical pleasure involves hearing, etc.
However, sensate pleasure or delight, although real, is not lasting and is dependent on our material bodies. Therefore they cannot equate to true happiness, which is lasting. The delights of the body are secondary to the delights of the soul.
In the last article published before his death in 1963, CS Lewis argued that we have no “right to happiness.” The context of his essay was the rising rate of divorce and the oft-given argument that once a marriage no longer gives sexual pleasure then it is right that the marriage end and a new happiness be sought.
This “right to happiness is so prevalent nowadays that Lewis’s point is even more prescient. True happiness, argues Lewis, always involves temperance; self-control over those desires that promise happiness through pleasure.
With the breakdown of traditional mores and institutions that promoted sexual propriety, sexual pleasure has become a right even to the point of claiming our identity. Is it any wonder that in an environment such as this there are so many recent revelations, in the worlds of entertainment and politics, of sexual impropriety?
Lewis argues that if the “right to happiness” is claimed for the sexual impulse, it will have a disastrous flow on effect: “The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives.
We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilisation will have died at heart, and will—one dare not even add “unfortunately”—be swept away.”
If not in pleasure, wealth, honour and power, then where will we find true happiness? CS Lewis states, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
It is only in God, the perfection of all being, that true, lasting happiness is found. And in the great paradox of Christianity, it is only by giving ourselves away that we will find this happiness. On the Cross, Jesus is without wealth, honour, pleasure and power, and yet in this act of self-giving love he gives the road map to happiness: in order to be fulfilled, to be truly happy, I must die to myself.
Dr Paul Morrissey is the president of Campion College, Australia’s only Liberal Arts College. See his recent interview on Sky News, below, about quality tertiary education.