Why Care About Happiness?

In case you haven’t heard, AEI president Arthur Brooks has been talking about happiness. Who is happy? What brings us happiness? Which guideposts provide the surest path to happiness? His whole talk is well worth watching:

But before we ask these questions, we should first answer this one: Why does happiness matter?

To be honest, the stoic in me resents such a focus on happiness. Why should I care so much about my own happiness? To do so seems selfish and vain. And what differentiates the Declaration of Independence’s “pursuit of happiness” from the contemporary obsession with pleasure and comfort?

My second objection is easily refuted because it is based on a faulty understanding of happiness. Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s conception of self-interest, the happiness that Brooks is talking about is not some deranged form of it, but rather “happiness rightly understood.” Selfish pleasure-seeking and fulfillment of desire may result in temporary happiness, but they are actually damaging to the sustained happiness that Brooks and Thomas Jefferson are referring to.

Yet, as far as I’m concerned, the first objection is not so easily overcome. Is it not self-centered to place such an emphasis on my own happiness and fulfillment? Why does my personal happiness matter as long as I am serving God and others?

Though honorable, I’ve recently found this sentiment to be misguided as well. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Father Zossima (a wise, old monk) offers thought-provoking insight:

[M]en are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.

But why is this so?

Because God created us to live a certain way; and thankfully He is not vindictive or malicious, but a kind and loving God. Which means: we are not created to be stoics—painfully living in misery to satisfy God’s wishes. God intends for us to live the [actual] good life, experiencing meaningful and lasting happiness, joy and fulfillment.

And what does such a life look like?

Based on his research, Brooks posits that there are four central aspects to a happy life: faith, family, community and work. While this may not provide an all-encompassing description of a godly life, it is definitely on the right track.

After all, the first and greatest commandment is this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39). These charges are carried out by investments in faith, family and community.

     Why care about happiness? Because it is a sign that we are “doing God’s will on earth.”

As for work, Genesis 2:15 states, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Likewise, in each of our daily lives, God expects us to use our talents to do work that furthers His Kingdom and contributes to the flourishing of others. Here again, Brooks is right that productive use of our faculties is essential to a fulfilling life.

In the end, I think the lesson that we should take from Dostoevsky and Brooks is this: We shouldn’t seek happiness per se. Instead, we should strive to live lives that are consistent with our created nature (which, in large part, means making significant investments in faith, family, community and work). Certainly we will all still experience periods of great sadness and pain, but a life that is rightly ordered and in line with our created purpose will be a consistently joyful one—even in those hard times.

So why care about happiness? Because it is a sign that we are “doing God’s will on earth.”

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