On Being Happy
“Consider a common thought pattern,” writes Ronald W. Dworkin in First Things:
We have an unpleasant sensation. It might be nothing more than the absence of excitement, a lifelessness in life itself. Nothing is distinct, but there is still much to feel. The unpleasant sensation becomes the axis on which our existence turns; it has a disquieting power, and we seek the reasons for it. The inquiry is intriguing, for paradoxically, we like to analyze our woes, and we find comfort in talking about them. Eventually, we call ourselves “unhappy,” but only after we have furnished our unpleasant sensation with a reason of some kind. Before, we simply experienced an unpleasant sensation; now, we are unhappy because …
As I read Dworkin’s article “The Politics of Unhappiness,” it occurred to me that, without intending to, I’ve just finished three books about happiness.
We Want to Be Happy
J. Budziszewski writes in How and How Not to Be Happy (the first book), “Though people disagree about what happiness is, they are rarely in doubt that it is their ultimate desire. Whatever it is to be fulfilled, they want to be fulfilled. Whatever it is to flourish, they want to flourish.” In fact, he writes, “Unqualified happiness is not only something we long for, but something we can’t help but long for. The longing seems rooted in our nature; it is our deepest and most persistent desire.” We want to be happy.
This is the perennial appeal of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (the second book). While known for her happy endings, not everyone in an Austen novel gets one. Virtuous Jane Bennett finds happiness with virtuous Mr. Bingley and virtuous Elizabeth Bennett with virtuous Mr. Darcy. But consider Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte, whose marriage to Mr. Collins is basically mercenary. His secure and valuable living as pastor to a great family will provide her with a comfortable life despite the fact that she knows only too well that he’s a self-focused, sniveling fool. Lydia Bennett trades her virtue — and thus her happiness — for the fun of running away with Mr. Wickham, a very handsome, well-mannered military officer whose life and character are in shambles. Mr. Bennett, Mrs. Bennett, moralistic Mary Bennett and Mr. Bingley’s sisters also lack virtue and get no happy endings.
As my colleague and Austen scholar Dr. Tiffany Schubert writes, happiness in Austen is only “obtained through education in virtue and grounded in love.”
Which brings me back to Budziszewski’s exploration of the nature of happiness. Is happiness wealth, beauty, fame, praise, self-esteem, power, pleasure or painlessness? What about meaning, love or virtue? Budziszewski explains why we might think each of these things things brings happiness and then goes on to show how that can never be the case.
He concludes, “whatever I have and however much I have, I want something else, something in some sense beyond, something that by its very nature lacks the limitations of the goods we meet in the ordinary course of life. But if that is true, then nothing in our natural experience can make us fully happy.”
Two options remain: accept partial and imperfect happiness or look beyond our natural experience to find happiness.
Budziszewski recommends the latter as did Dante Aleghieri 700 years earlier.
Looking Beyond the Natural
During Lent, I read two canti of Dante’s Divine Comedy each day (the third book). Dante begins in unhappiness to the point of despair.
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh —
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so. (Inferno 1.1-7)
His situation evokes pity and prayers such that a guide comes to rescue him, bring him into the depths of Hell and up Mount Purgatory, the mountain of sanctification. As in Austen, so in Dante happiness is “obtained through education in virtue and grounded in love.”
Once educated in virtue and grounded in love, Dante ascends into the highest heavens where his desire for happiness can be fully satisfied.
“To the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,
glory,” cried all the souls of Paradise,
and I became drunk on the sweetness of their song.
It seemed to me I saw the universe
smile, so that my drunkenness
came now through hearing and through sight.
O happiness! O joy beyond description!
O life fulfilled in love and peace!
O riches held in store, exempt from craving! (Paradiso 27.1-9)
Like Dante, J. Budziszewski understands that, “I will, in the end, receive the object of my uttermost longing, but only if my uttermost longing is for the one thing that can satisfy it.” And that one thing, he and Dante agree, is the vision of God, the beatific vision.
Refuse to Drug Discontent
What about Jane Austen? Austen fully understood the limits to happiness in this life. Her happy couples point to happiness beyond marriage and beyond this world. She prayed, “Give us grace to endeavour after a truly Christian Spirit to seek to attain that temper of Forbearance and Patience, of which our Blessed Saviour has set us the highest Example and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this World can give.”
So why are we unhappy? Because we seek happiness in the wrong objects. We seek it in this world where it cannot ultimately be found.
“Blessed are those,” writes Budziszewski, “who refuse to drug their discontent with futile satisfactions. Supremely happy are those who settle for nothing less than supreme happiness.”
Dante, Jane Austen and I all say, “Amen!”
James Tonkowich, D.Min., a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”