What Exactly is “Happiness”

By: Paul Murano – January, 2015

When the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, I witnessed many people wishing each other the customary “Happy New Year!” I wondered: Do people really understand what they are wishing? What is happiness? Why does it seem so elusive?

As a college Ethics Instructor, the focus of my classes often centers on the notion of happiness. There tends to be a consensus today that happiness is a feeling or an emotion. This is sold to us by the media and supported by the tri-fold philosophical disease of our time – materialism, utilitarianism, and relativism. But is transient emotional or physical pleasure really happiness?

Going beneath the surface, we see happiness is not mere excitement or pleasure. Rather, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, it is the flourishing of the human person by the fulfillment of his nature. All five dimensions of human nature must be fostered: biological, intellectual, family, social, and religious life. To Aristotle, the highest form of happiness is contemplation of eternal truths; for Aquinas, it is ultimately union with God, which begins in this life and continues more perfectly in the next.

The less we feed our higher rational and spiritual needs the more we try to fill the void with physical and emotional pleasures. These are good when sought as a means rather than an end – as a way to love, not use, a person.

Intentionally separating pleasure from purpose leads to obsession and addiction – a sure way to unhappiness. This is consistent with the modern tendency to depersonalize and emphasize elements of our lower nature that are in common with other animals. As a result, we ironically seek happiness by acting more like animals.

Pope Francis recently made this comment: “Watch out for anger that can lead to vengeance; for laziness that leads to existential euthanasia; for pointing the finger at others, which leads to pride; and for complaining continuously, which leads to desperation.”

Although each of these acts lead directly to unhappiness, “existential euthanasia” sticks out for me. How many of us have a defeatist attitude that combines cynicism and apathy to bring about an existential euthanasia? Yet, we know that tending just to our desires for comfort, security, and pleasure leaves us unfulfilled.

What perspective is needed to overcome the world, foster our higher nature, and maintain hope? What attitude must be adopted to reject the cynicism-apathy trap that keeps us from attaining happiness? Take a tip from the late Mother Teresa. When asked by a reporter why she bothered helping the poor when they only continued to multiply, she responded simply: “Christ doesn’t call me to be successful, He calls me to be faithful.”