I have been reflecting on the meaning, purpose, and orientation we have towards making happiness the defining factors of our lives. This has becomes especially prevalent in my times of prayer and reflection since being in Gallup and working with the people I do. This has also begun to influence how I see things like the news, media, and entertainment.
Through all of this, I have realized something. Happiness has become meaningless. I am not saying happiness is not important in life. Rather, I am saying that happiness has lost all meaning because it is not rooted in something transcendent.
What is it that most people say when it comes to life decision? “well, as long as you’re happy.” This is meaningless without God, virtue, grace, and meaning. If you look at film, at the news, even the most unvirtuous find happiness at times. They find happiness in their power, influence, fame, etc. Thus, can life be defined by what makes us happy if it is not connected with something deeper and more fundamental?
What begun my reflection on this was when I went to Lourdes in the summer of 2011 just prior to World Youth Day. I recall being struck by the words of our Lady to St Bernadette: “I can’t promise to make you happy in this life, but can promise you happiness in the next life.” This struck me because it goes so much against the grain of our society; the words of our Lady are, in fact, the antithesis of all that we hold to be true and dear in our contemporary world.
Ever since then I have been asking myself: “is happiness the ultimate goal of all that we hold to be true and dear in life?” My conclusion is that no, it isn’t. It isn’t because happiness can happen with our virtue and it can happen with vice. Happiness is no longer something determined by an objective call outside of ourselves. Rather it is entirely subjective, which means that happiness is determined by our narcissistic tendencies that so plague our contemporary world (I will save the topic of narcissism for another day, because that is equally important a topic).
I have realized this down here too because I see people every day who are drunk, overcome by their addictive habits, and yet are happy when they participate in this vice. But it is not something that is stable, that lasts. It is fleeting, and the pain and sorrows they are so desperately trying to escape come to the fore of their conscience with a vengeance. Happiness comes, but then it goes. Perhaps it is better to define the contemporary sense of happiness as mere pleasure.
Thus I do not think we ought to be asking ourselves, at least with how we tend to use the word ‘happiness’ nowadays, “does this make me happy?” Happiness is fleeting because it is identified with pleasure and I believe it to be too difficult to redefine it. Our question ought to be “does this bring the peace of Christ to my heart”. The fruit of peace is joy. Peace and joy are something that is stable and consistent. They are rooted in holiness and virtue. When it is happiness we seek and make the arbiter of our life’s goals, we often end up miserable because our happiness is not constant, is not always there. Joy, however, is something that is constant. Peace is something that is constant because Christ is always faithful. Thus it is that we seek Him constantly, that we turn to glorify Him and Him alone, trusting that our needs will be provided for by His Father in Heaven. We need not worry about our own holiness, God will take care of that. We need only turn our perception away from ourselves and towards the Glory of God. Only then will peace and joy settle in our hearts because we will be constantly seeking Him. To turn from self, to turn to the Other, to Jesus, this is what makes life truly joy-filled and peace-filled. There will be happiness too, no doubt. But their is also pain and suffering. To deny this is to deny the reality of life. To say “am I happy?” is to avoid the reality of sacrifice, suffering, and pain that we cannot avoid in this world. That is what happens when sin reigns. There is no happiness in the Cross, but there is joy and peace. Thus we need to start changing the way we see the world, accepting the reality of the world as it is, and to seek peace and joy and not simply the fleetingness of happiness. I have seen people who just want happiness and equate that with their own subjective standards. This has caused me to see this in myself as well. This is a challenge to move outside our selves and into seeking only the Glory of God in all that we say and do.