When it comes to finding joy, Christopher Cooney is a master of the art
Are we living in a post-happiness world? asks New York Times writer Laura M. Holson. After consulting various pundits and experts her answer seems to be, “On the whole, yes.” Ominously, she reports that with Trump in the White House (an all too predictable scapegoat) and climate change at the door, Americans have fallen behind Australians and Canadians in World Happiness Report rankings.
(Why do some Americans think we always have to be at the top of everything? What is so bad about being 19th out of 156 countries?)
Many of us hardly know what the word happiness means any more — but we do know when we feel joy. The author of “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness” tells Ms Holson: “I don’t think about happiness anymore. I think about joy. And if you string together enough moments of joy, maybe you can have a happy life.”
That, I think, is getting things back-to-front. It reduces happiness to a sense of well-being, or enjoyment, making it depend on transient things like buying a new piece of furniture, taking a walk outdoors, or, for kids, a meal at McDonalds or a drink of soda pop. Even the most elevated experiences, such as an evening at the opera, must end, and the pleasure gained from them evaporates soon after.
Happiness, on the other hand, is what persists when “moments of joy” pass and is fed by something much deeper than sensations. It is the contentment of the heart when one is at peace with God, others, and oneself. It comes from habits or virtues that are learned from childhood onwards, and that support us through all the ups and downs of life.
Charity, or disinterested love, and gratitude are the first that spring to mind, even if they are not the first we learn. Unfortunately, they are not mentioned in the Times article.
“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a10)
So, material security is usually necessary for happiness, but the exercise of virtue comes first, and all the virtues.
If we have less of both, it could be because the institutions that foster them are broken, or at least are much weaker than in previous generations.
In his popular talk “The Secret to Happiness,” American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks suggests that, while genetics and other innate qualities control our potential for happiness to some degree, four factors — faith, family, community, and meaningful work — dominate the fraction of our happiness that we can control. For the sake of ourselves and our communities, he says, we need to invest deeply in those four things and forget the rest.
Considering that many families today are broken, and fewer and fewer people are going to church, it’s no wonder that many people are unhappy. Add to that the dramatic rise of social media. Although it has created virtual communities, it has also left many young people feeling lonely and left out in the cold, barely able to engage in real communities.
The Times article quotes a scholar who recognizes that “a lack of togetherness” contributes to the decline in happiness, and points to the role that churches played in bringing people together. “Church gave you awe, joy, and ecstasy. You collected in a group. You sang a little. You gave money. You got to chant.”
Hmm. But that is not primarily how faith (or church-going) gives joy and happiness. Rather, faith gives us the assurance of God's mercy and goodness. With this assurance, we can see the loving hand of God even in suffering, which is inevitable in everyone’s life. And Christians, specifically, are assured by Christ that their joy is bound up, like his, with love: if they keep the commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” their joy “will be complete.” They will be happy.
It seems like an oxymoron that Christian love, which by nature requires self-sacrifice, brings true and lasting happiness. But the happiest people I know habitually put the happiness of others before their own.
We don’t need to live in a post-happiness era. And we don’t need to “careen from moment to moment” grasping at and “stringing together” transient moments of joy. For happiness is not so elusive as the pundits suggest. It will come — whoever is in the White House — if we build strong families and communities, have faith, cultivate gratitude, and practice all the virtues, especially charity.