Happiness is…

Happiness, says Charlie Brown, is knowing a secret. Happiness is . . . learning to whistle . . . climbing a tree . . . two kinds of ice cream . . . catching a firefly. . . . For happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you!

It’s a touching song. But I have found that attaining the good life isn’t that simple. And it seems that the abundance of recent articles and studies exploring the topic confirm my experience.

In a recent study of happiness, the Journal of Positive Psychology found (confirming what some of us didn’t need reams of scientific data to believe) that, in comparison to a “happy life,” a “meaningful life” is more fulfilling and worthwhile. Happiness is defined as “feeling good,” being a “taker” rather than a giver, and experiencing low stress levels. A meaningful life (which may have very little happiness) is characterized by goals or purposes, willingness to sacrifice for others, and an ability to hold a larger vision of past and future. According to the study, “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

This conclusion—that we can rise above our need for “happiness”–may be true. But it is unsatisfying, like the conclusion of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. In the novel, the pampered prince Rasselas discovers that all pleasures, occupations, and stations of life fail to bring happiness and that all people, whether they admit it or not, are miserable. He concludes that happiness on earth is impossible, and the best a person can do is to seek virtue and renounce the world’s joys; for it is only after death, when the vanities of the temporal world are gone, that the soul can be in any way happy.

But according to the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, Samuel Johnson and these researchers have all mis-defined their term. You can’t escape your need for happiness so easily. Mill’s definition of happiness is almost an axiom: happiness is that which people want. In “On Virtue and Happiness,” he says, “there is in reality nothing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so.” Happiness is the only motivator and encompasses all desires of human life, according to Mill. For the researchers from the Journal of Positive Psychology, then, “meaning” has become the new meaning of “happiness:” the thing we need and want for a good life.

Mill’s definition is just a more complicated way of putting what Charlie Brown said. We can’t escape our desire for happiness, because happiness is what we want—it is defined by what we love. So happiness should be possible, if it’s possible to know and have what we love.

But I believe the trouble clouding our search for happiness is that we struggle to love anything successfully. Since I was twelve or thirteen, my whole life has been absorbed in the effort to prevent happiness from withering out of the good things I wanted to love. I suspect the same is true for you. Let me explain.

The most obvious thing people pursue, which they also think will bring them happiness, is the satisfactions of physical needs and desires: pleasure, comfort, and security. People seek happiness and well-being in food, sex, alcohol, money, nice cars, big houses, better medical drugs, the back-to-nature vegan diet, etc. But here is the thing about pleasure and security. It would bring happiness if humans behaved the way other animals behave—simply as organisms responding to those parts of their environment to which they have been genetically programmed or trained to respond.

But we don’t behave this way. As Walker Percy notes in Lost in the Cosmos, people can feel miserable in the most comfortable of environments, and they often flourish in a catastrophe. Have you ever found yourself secretly enjoying bad news, a hurricane, or a deadly flu epidemic, because it broke you out of boredom? Percy argues that this paradox “comes to pass because the impoverishments and enrichments of a self in a world are not necessarily the same as the impoverishments and enrichments of an organism in an environment.”

A self, according to Percy, is a namer, and its world is everything within its experience. You and I are selves. We insist on naming and categorizing everything that we perceive, even if it has no relation to our biological or psychological needs. We name stars, puppies, anemones, continents, and past and future events. Unlike an animal’s environment, our world has no gaps, because we have even made names for the gaps, calling them “gaps” or “wilderness” or “matter.”

Unfortunately, the one thing we struggle to name is the self. This is the predicament of “a mind which professes to understand bodies and galaxies but is by the very act of understanding marooned in the Cosmos, with which is has no connection.” Percy suggests that happiness can only come when you succeed in identifying and placing your “otherwise unspeakable self.”

Maybe it is because the self is unspeakable, a “black hole,” that it is confused about what it loves. It may also be that some of the things a person desires are themselves unspeakable. Two authors, C.S. Lewis in the mid-twentieth century and Zadie Smith in a recent New York Review of Books article, write eloquently of a kind of desire that is different from the longing for pleasure. Both call it joy, and both describe it as an experience that is both painful and highly desirable. For Lewis, the experience itself is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction;” it is “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

This problematic desire called joy may come through a good conversation, a romantic evening, a moving performance of music, or any experience of beauty. It comes unasked for, and it passes as it came; you cannot keep it. Lewis, the Christian, says it is a desire for a faraway homeland. Smith refrains from speculating on its nature, only saying that we must experience it occasionally in order to live. 

But since we can’t call up joy and can’t name, let alone satisfy, the the unspeakable longings, we usually mistake them with more tangible desires for pleasure. Like Rasselas, we find disappointment in pleasures because we are confusing one kind of love with another. We put a burden on physical pleasures to deliver more than they possibly can. And “joy,” too, is troubling to live with. Smith says, “It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.”

We sense a deep desire that we can’t place, surfacing and vanishing. For this reason, when we pursue pleasure as a goal, we often find it unsettling and confusing instead of sweet. But suppose we gave up the quest for happiness through pleasure and sought it through success or virtue. Since, as far as we know, neither complete virtue nor total success is possible for one person, I suspect that disappointment would result. The same is true of all the things on which people bank their happiness: knowledge, virtue, altruism, freedom, fame, power. 

Despite all this language of love, desire, joy, and pleasure, we haven’t yet found a viable definition for human happiness. We can’t have all the things we desire, and the good things we do have are difficult to live with, let alone to love. The question remains: is it possible to attain some kind of happiness in this life? Or will we be forever only pursuing it—through the loveliness of nature, through a person, through nostalgia, through food and drink; until we turn away disillusioned and, like the stoic, relinquish our desire for the world’s beauties?

I believe it is possible to be happy—with a kind of happiness that is meant for this life. This happiness is not the same as having everything you want. The kind of happiness you need is a way of living that allows you to love good things. This means that the primary goal, when we speak of the pursuit of happiness, is not the good things themselves: pleasure, virtue, success, or any kind of emotional high. The primary goal is a coherent way of living.

As Percy suggests, you need a view of the world that includes a name for the self. To be able to love, you need a position for the self. You need a sense of identity and an intellectual framework of names into which all your experiences—including griefs, pains, joys, and pleasures—fit. You need an intellectual system, perhaps a religious system, certainly a faith system that provides names for the self, for other selves, and for the world. Maybe this is the “meaning” the psychologist researchers were referring to.

I have no intention of arguing here about which system best provides the framework needed for happiness. While I believe Christianity offers the most coherent vision of the world–with the self identified as redeemed creature and brother or sister under God–that’s not the point of this essay. I will just note that one system clearly fails to provide a way of life compatible with happiness. With its model of the human solely as organism in an environment, materialistic science leaves no room for the self—the namer—and thus no room for happiness. Read Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book for a brilliant and funny description of how modern science has alienated the modern person and exacerbated all the problems of the self.

Have I attained happiness, then? I can only say I believe I have discovered the way to begin pursuing it. One must ask the questions in the right order. Before you ask, “how can I find the satisfaction for my desires” or “how can I live virtuously and successfully,” you must first address the questions, “who am I? Who are you? What is this world that is so achingly lovely? And what purpose, if any, do pain, pleasure, and disappointment have in it?” If you are fortunate enough to find answers to such questions, then maybe you will have learned the secret of loving the beauties of this world and surviving its sorrows.