What is happiness? How does one find it? Can one find it? It seems a simple enough question. Each of us thinks and speaks about happiness constantly, and we do so in a way that assumes everyone knows what we mean by it. We can imagine, for instance, facing a decision concerning career or marriage or mode of life and receiving from friends and family the advice that “the important thing is to be happy.” Perhaps, when we find someone we know living in a way that we find odd or distasteful, we content ourselves by saying “Well, as long as they are happy…” Whatever Thomas Jefferson might precisely have meant by naming the pursuit of happiness as one of the three inalienable rights given by the Creator, he at least assumed – and our nation through the years has appeared to agree with him – that everyone knows more or less what it means to pursue happiness.
Nevertheless, there is more complexity in the question than first appears. If the meaning of 'happiness' is so obvious, why do so few people seem to possess it? Why is the claim that a given possession or experience or set of practices will bring us happiness so endlessly potent to us? We will find, as soon as we pursue the question, that the human race is caught in a difficult dilemma as regards happiness, a perplexing experience that has been the starting point of a great deal of thought through the ages.
Before discussing that dilemma, we should be clear about what sort of happiness we are talking about. We sometimes use the word 'happiness' in a moderate or comparative sense, in which we mean that all things considered, we think a given situation good: we are happy about our current employment, or about good weather for game day, or about our luck in missing the nasty cold going around. This state of mind is sometimes called 'contentment.' Sometimes we speak about happiness in a different and deeper way. However contented we may be, this partial happiness is ultimately not enough for us. We are searching for something more: we seek a happiness that extends further, one that cannot escape us, one that leads beyond a merely proximate or temporary or limited fulfillment. We are looking for ultimate and absolute happiness, for the fulfillment of all our deepest desires, for what might be called 'Happiness' with a capital 'H.' This is the kind of happiness we are talking about. It is here that the dilemma confronts us.
Our Dilemma Regarding Human Happiness
Blaise Pascal, the famous seventeenth-century French scientist and theologian, has put the dilemma of human happiness in stark terms. Here is his description:
- It must be possible to find ultimate happiness – Happiness with a capital H – since we all know what we mean by it, we all experience a profound desire for it, and most of us spend a good deal of time and energy in pursuit of it.
- No one, to our knowledge, has ever credibly found such happiness.
The difficulty we face is in squaring these two statements. If it is possible to find ultimate Happiness, as seems to be the case given its universal pursuit, why is it that no one has found it? We could avoid the dilemma if we understood Happiness as being something difficult to gain or rare in its attainment, like climbing Mt. Everest or winning the lottery – but it would still have to be possible. If no one ever won the lottery, would people go on buying tickets? To approach the quandary from the other side: Given the fact that we do not know anyone who has ever arrived at the kind of Happiness we long for, why is the attainment of that Happiness so constant a concern for us? Why do we think, dream, and hope for it, and act upon those hopes, if it is so unlikely that we will ever find it?
We are searching for something more: we seek a happiness that extends further, one that cannot escape us, one that leads beyond a merely proximate or temporary or limited fulfillment.
Before going further, we might ask if these two observations about happiness are really true. Do we really desire ultimate Happiness and act in order to attain it? Is it really the case that we know of no one who has found it?
As to the truth of the first claim, that we all experience a profound desire for Happiness: while it may be impossible simply to prove, it seems to be a nearly universal experience written into our consciousness. We all seem to desire such absolute fulfillment and Happiness and actively hope for it. One way to see the truth of the claim is to deny it by asserting its opposite: “By and large, people do not want to find complete Happiness; they are not interested in it, it does not move them, they do not long for it or dream about it, they do very little to try to find it.” As soon as the matter is put this way, it shows itself to be false. A great deal of advertising plays upon our desire for Happiness; most of the love songs of the world take that desire for granted; it stands behind the constant striving for a perfect world that has motivated so many individuals and movements. The desire for Happiness is especially potent among the young, who have yet to grow weary of seeking it. The very existence of this desire points at least to the probability that there is something that answers to it. Our other desires correspond to realities that can fulfill them: we get hungry and there is such a thing as food; we desire companionship and communion, and there exist friendship and family and sexual union. Surely, the profound and momentous desire for Happiness that lives in the deepest part of our personalities must also have something to correspond to it. Thus, we go on looking for ultimate Happiness, and we grow weary and desolate if we find no echoes in the world around us answering to the desire that ever stirs in our hearts.
As to the second claim, that it appears no one has ever found the ultimate Happiness we all seek: it may seem a severe judgment to say that no one has ever found this kind of Happiness, but upon reflection it will be found to be true. Most people would be quick to admit that they are far from such a state of Happiness. Even those who say they are happy – whose lives, on balance, appear to be going well in various ways – will be among the first to say that there is much in their experience that falls short of their desire. The very fact that the whole world is still looking for the path to complete fulfillment is proof of the lack. If, for instance, a surefire cure for cancer were found, it would not be long before every cancer sufferer would make use of it. If a fountain of youth were discovered in some dark corner of the world, everyone would soon make the journey, however difficult, to drink from it. If, therefore, complete Happiness were decisively encountered and the way to gaining it became clear, we could expect that the whole of humanity would make a headlong rush at it, solving the problem of Happiness once and for all. This has never happened: whatever limited good we may have encountered in the promises of fulfillment held out to us, we come away unsatisfied. Beyond this, it would seem to be implicit in the very structure of human life on earth that such happiness cannot be found, since it could only be enjoyed in a state of permanence, and nothing in this changing world is permanent.
Broadly speaking, humanity has formulated three responses to the dilemma of human happiness over the centuries. Two of these responses extricate themselves from the horns of the dilemma by denying one of the dilemma’s two propositions. The third admits the truth of both propositions, but solves the difficulty in a particular way.
1. The Epicurean Answer to the Dilemma
One way of dealing with the dilemma of happiness is by denying the second proposition, which claims that no one has ever found Happiness. According to what can be called the Epicurean view, people have in fact discovered happiness – so long as we define it properly. The Epicureans were devotees of a school of philosophy in the ancient world who attempted to make sense of life within the parameters of birth and death, taking into account only material things.
The Epicurean view holds that humans are merely a kind of higher animal and nothing more, different from other animals not in essence, but only in degree, and like animals they are bound by the possibilities and limitations of the material world. Voltaire, a noted philosopher of the French Enlightenment, was a witty proponent of this view of life. In one of his works, he took exception to the view of his countryman, Blaise Pascal, who was quoted above:
The phrase “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die” expresses the Epicurean attitude. One might ask: how are we to be merry if we are to die tomorrow? Don’t ask – it is a question to which the Epicurean has no good answer. The point is to maximize the pleasures of this life carefully such that one can experience them most fully. The Epicurean road is not an invitation to wild living and sensual excess, however. A little intelligence or experience will teach any attentive person that the unbridled pursuit of sensual desire does not lead to happiness, but rather to addiction, violence, and suffering. Instead, the point for the Epicurean is moderation, balance and measure, according to a careful utilitarian calculation. Some food, but not too much; some sex, but not in excess; some work and some play, some socializing and some solitude, each according to the proper measure; enough wealth to be comfortable and master of oneself but not so much as to cause undue anxiety. In short, the Epicurean’s goal is a well-crafted earthly existence.
The Epicurean vision of life would have been impossible for the majority of humans before the modern age, as the scarcity of resources and the necessities of existence meant that few had the power to construct a life according to this kind of “untroubled” pleasure: it could have been a philosophy only for a small privileged elite. The technological revolution and the great wealth it has produced has made the Epicurean ideal more approachable for many, and the Epicurean attitude has taken on corresponding strength. Mainstream American culture can be understood to be loosely Epicurean with an influential Christian overlay, or perhaps loosely Christian with a strong Epicurean bent. We tend not to aim very high, attempting merely to make sense of things from the standpoint of this life alone and resenting circumstances that get in the way of our comfortable plans.
Instead, the point for the Epicurean is moderation, balance and measure, according to a careful utilitarian calculation... In short, the Epicurean’s goal is a well-crafted earthly existence.
The Epicurean attitude is expressed in many of our cultural currents: in our obsession with physical health and fitness; in our body-sculpting and our concern for perfection of physical appearance; in our demand to be entertained by a distracting barrage of arresting images; in our single-minded pursuit of wealth; in our over-concern for economic, political, or environmental challenges; in our fear of death, dislike of old age, and aborting of disabled and unplanned children; in our constant talk about “quality of life” as the measure of a meaningful existence. When Benjamin Franklin articulated his view of sexual ethics by saying that one should “rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation,” he was expressing an Epicurean attitude. The jungle choir in Disney’s “The Lion King” are presenting an Epicurean narrative of birth and death when they sing about the “Circle of Life.”
The distinguishing mark of the Epicurean attitude is not in its suggestion that health, or a long life, or physical comfort, or moderate wealth are good and desirable things – that would be an obvious and commonsensical point. Rather, what sets the Epicurean attitude apart is its claim that the possession of such goods and circumstances will bring us all the happiness we ought to seek, and that this sort of happiness is enough for us. “It is with man as with animals.”
The Epicurean response has a certain immediacy and can be compelling for a time, especially when it is sustained by material prosperity and the magic of technological power. However, in addition to its inability to give a good account of the origin and ground of existence (a serious shortcoming), it fails in at least two directions. First, it provides no answer to the deeper longing for a more ultimate Happiness experienced by so many, and the rewards it offers can come to seem thin and ultimately meaningless. Life is often a wearisome burden even for the rich and healthy. Second and more troublingly, the Epicurean vision is helpless when confronting suffering and is mute in the face of sorrow and death. It has nothing to say to the large number of people – the great majority of humans – who for various reasons are outside the possibility of the Epicurean “good life.”
The early Christian response to the Epicurean answer to the riddle of Happiness was mainly contempt. These Christians entered into serious conversation with three of the ancient philosophic schools – the Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics – finding within each of them genuine insights into human existence, going so far as to incorporate many of these insights into their own way of seeing things. With the Epicureans, however, who viewed humans not as enfleshed immortal souls but as mere material creatures, the Christians could find no point of contact. It is therefore not surprising that the Epicurean-Christian amalgam characteristic of the modern Western world is so out of sympathy with most of the Christian tradition.
2. The Absurdist Answer to the Dilemma
A second way of resolving the dilemma of happiness seems to run exactly counter to the Epicurean solution, acknowledging frankly the claim that no one has ever found ultimate Happiness. It also admits that nearly everyone desires Happiness and spends a great deal of energy looking for it, but it rejects the idea that there is any possibility of finding such Happiness. According to this way of understanding our insatiable desire for Happiness is a trick played on us by the universe. There is no meaning to anything in existence: we are just under the illusion that there is. This way of responding to the dilemma of happiness can be called the absurdist response.
Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put the situation this way: Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance” (Nausea). Our high desires for fulfillment are an accident of the evolutionary process. Ernest Hemingway portrayed this attitude with impressive literary power in his novels and short stories in which his characters, faced by the meaningless nature of life, attempt to gain a semblance of dignity by rebelling against its absurdity. Sometimes the only way to achieve true dignity – to raise one’s defiant fist against the absurdity of the world – was to commit suicide, an option Hemingway himself ultimately took.
Film director and actor Woody Allen expressed something of this attitude in an interview with The New Yorker in 1996: “I’ve always thought that people can’t take too much reality. I like being in Ingmar Bergman’s world, or Louis Armstrong’s world, or the world of the New York Knicks, because it’s not this world. You spend your whole life searching for a way out. You just get an overdose of reality. It’s a terrible thing. I am always fighting against reality.”
A soft version of this attitude is expressed in cynical catchphrases that gain currency around us: “Nobody said it was going to be easy.” “Get used to it: life is hard, and youthful ideals are nothing but romantic sentiments.” The bumper sticker that says “Life sucks and then you die” puts the matter with a certain blunt clarity.
The absurdist response has the benefit of taking human suffering seriously. It has no patience with the bland suggestions of the Epicurean, and instead, with a kind of brutal honesty, it attempts to tear off the deceptive bandage of the “happiness-through-comfort” view of life, seeking to face facts squarely and courageously. This all forces it to encounter a different sort of challenge: it is impossible to live this way with any consistency. It is no surprise that those who become convinced of the absurdist position often make a violent end of a life that they find so senseless and torturous. The great majority of humans have never been ready to accept the idea that there is no purpose whatsoever to life, and they reasonably ask why humans have developed such a strong desire for something that can have no possible fulfillment. Nevertheless, while a consistently-applied absurdist philosophy does not have much of a popular following, its influence can be felt in the strong undertow of cynicism found in many of our cultural attitudes and expressions. Many who begin by embracing an Epicurean view of things often grow increasingly despondent as the materialist happiness they are seeking fails to satisfy them, and they reluctantly settle into a soft version of the absurdist view. Facing what Henry David Thoreau identified as “quiet desperation” and “unconscious despair,” they look around to find some way to keep themselves amused and distracted; thus, constant activity and an atmosphere of noise become the prescription for a numbed heart. The Epicurean and the Absurdist views of the world, though seemingly opposite in character, tend to merge into one another, with the failure of the one becoming the seed-bed of the other.
3. The Religious/Philosophical Answer to the Dilemma
A third response to the dilemma of happiness – one that has been taken by most people and most human societies throughout history – embraces a religious or religio-philosophical view of the world. According to this set of views, both horns of the dilemma are accurate observations: it is true that we are meant for ultimate fulfillment, which is why we all seek it, and it is also true that this ultimate fulfillment has not been credibly found by anyone. The solution, then, is found by suggesting that while ultimate Happiness can be attained, is not to be discovered within the confines of our current existence. Such Happiness can be encountered only under a different mode of being, one at which we have not yet arrived.
An obvious question emerges for those following this path: if ultimate happiness is indeed to be found, but not in this life and not under current circumstances, how and where are we to find it? What are the conditions of its pursuit and encounter? What is the road (or roads) that lead to it? Broadly speaking, there have been two answers to these questions that the majority of humanity, in our most impressive religious and philosophical traditions, have found most compelling.
The Great Escape
The first of these answers concerning the road to Happiness, found in many different versions and in various times and places, might be called “The Great Escape.” An episode from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit provides us with its starting point. Protagonist Bilbo Baggins finds himself lost deep in the caves under the Misty Mountains, engaged in a duel of riddles with the frightful creature, Gollum, in order to determine whether Gollum would eat him or guide him out of the mountains. In this life-or-death battle of wits, Gollum sets Bilbo the following riddle:
There is a famous story about the young Siddhartha, the Indian prince who would come to be called the Buddha. He had been raised from his infancy in the seclusion of a luxurious palace, surrounded by comfort and physical delights. While still a youth, he was brought out of the palace into the bustling life of the city on three separate occasions, and there he had a series of encounters: first he saw a person suffering from old age, then a person disabled by sickness, and finally a person who had died. Each of these encounters was a new experience for him, and these confrontations with suffering and the ravages of time troubled him deeply. He set himself to understand what life could mean in the face of such facts, and out of this experience eventually came the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism, the first of which bluntly runs: “To exist is to suffer.”
Among the most poignant modern expressions of this way of responding to the passing world is W. B. Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
The Great Escape begins with the anguished realization that everything around us – even our own existence – is passing and impermanent.
The Great Escape is perhaps the best account humanity has been able to give, when left to itself, of our predicament concerning Happiness. It takes seriously the whole of human experience and gives an impressive answer to the human condition. It provides a compelling account of our desire for utter fulfillment, further giving reasons for our sense of incompleteness and shame and our need of forgiveness and purity. It speaks to our experience of suffering, and it offers a way to understand and ultimately to escape our predicament. In its many different guises, it has been developed by personalities of genius and sensitivity, coming to fruition in times and places where communal human life has gained depth and sophistication under the long development of philosophical, religious and cultural traditions. The Great Escape represents an impressive human achievement, one that can be set beside other great monuments of human civilization.
Nevertheless, the answer the Great Escape provides to the dilemma of human happiness lacks hope. When all is said and done, it is a grim way to understand the world. We gain escape, but into what? Once the escape is accomplished, what remains of our identity? Do we even exist, in the sense that we usually use that word? Is there anything left of this “I,” this center of consciousness that seems to be the ground of all my experience of self and the world? Can we be satisfied with a happiness that departs completely from the whole of earthly existence? Is there really nothing but suffering in being materially alive? In these deep traditions of humanity expressed in the Great Escape, there is an inescapable melancholy, a trembling at the edge of the grave, a sense of being caught by a dire condition that requires a renunciation of our fundamental humanity that can be accomplished only by a few noble souls.
Is that the best we can do? Probably. But it is not the best that God can do.
The second of the two great religious responses to the dilemma of human happiness is quite unlike the first. It did not arise in an especially impressive civilization, nor did it come about through long-developing philosophical and cultural traditions. It is not a proposed set of solutions to the problems of human existence; in fact, it is not a human answer to the dilemma of Happiness at all. Fascinatingly, this response arose out of the experience of an insignificant human grouping, descendants of one family, an unremarkable people who made a remarkable claim: they had been seized by the Lord and Creator of the universe and had been dealt with by him on his own initiative, according to his own agenda. This was not another story of humans seeking God; it is rather the remarkable tale of a God who came seeking humans. These were the Israelites, the Jews, the Chosen, the utterly unique people who unwittingly found themselves held in the mighty grip of a very personal and very energetic God, a God who had big plans in mind for them.
There is a way of talking about the religions of humanity and their development that can obscure for us how startling and unique the Jewish experience of God has been, and how unlikely its ultimate influence. We learn from anthropology and sociology that religion is a ubiquitous human phenomenon: we know of no society in which religion has not played a central role. Thus, it has been natural enough during the last few hundred years – in which Western academics have sought to reduce everything to system – to develop the discipline of “comparative religions.” We categorize religions, examine their development in different societies, and inquire into their origins and their functions. All of this is sensible enough. This kind of comparative study, however, is often based on the idea that religions are more or less alike, originating and developing along more or less similar lines. For those who have been taken imaginatively by evolutionary theories, in particular, it has become common to speak of all religions as non-problematic evolutionary developments, predictable human artifacts like pottery or civilized settlements.
Thinking in this mode, we slot the Jewish people and their experience into the analytical framework we have devised, speaking of the development of their religion as a natural thing, as if such occurrences happened all the time. Such an approach hides what should be obvious, namely, that the Jewish encounter with God is unique in human history. There has been nothing else like it: nothing else has even come close to it. The Israelite story has become the dominating religious experience of the human race.
While numbers are not everything, even a brief look at a few statistics concerning the current religious landscape will make clear at least one aspect of the uniqueness of the Jews in the religious history of the world: namely, the scope of their influence. Jews, Christians and Muslims -all of whom trace their religious ancestry to the experience of the ancient Israelites – account for around 56% of all humans now alive. (Another roughly 22% are either Hindus or followers of Hinduism’s child, Buddhism. This means that some three-fourths of the world’s population identify with these two religious traditions.) When those who are unaffiliated religiously are taken into account (around 16% of the world’s population), the numbers become yet more impressive: 65% of the world’s religious people trace their beliefs to the history of the Jews. In addition to this large number of adherents, the religions that came from the Jews are also by far the most universal. The religious descendants of the Israelites are found in large numbers in almost all corners of the world, among all its peoples and cultures.
This was not another story of humans seeking God; it is rather the remarkable tale of a God who came seeking humans.
What these data show is that to deal with the Israelite experience of God as just one religious tradition among many similar ones is to make a serious methodological error. There is no other tradition like the Jewish tradition, as no other people have made such a universal claim and no other religion has had such an overwhelming influence on the world, an influence that shows no sign of diminishing. Religiously speaking, the Jews are in a category of their own.
The uniqueness of the Jewish experience becomes yet clearer when one considers the contours of their religion. It is fundamentally different from the claims of Greek philosophers, from the experience of enlightenment that was passed on by the Buddha, and from the insights of the higher reaches of Hinduism. The Israelites were not philosophers, and they did not come to their faith by meditating on the passing nature of the world, or on the shortness of life, or on anything else, for that matter. By their own account they were not seeking God at all – they were rather sought by him. They were chosen – selected through no virtue or fault of their own – by a God who then revealed something of his nature and his purposes to them. What other people has a national history like that of the Israelites, in which the main actor is God, with the nation itself playing so secondary, and often so unimpressive, a part? The theme that runs through Israelite history from first to last is the drama of the great deeds of God and his faithfulness to his promises despite the unfaithfulness of the people he had chosen.
The Jews themselves knew their experience to be extraordinary:
Into that Chosen People, entirely by the initiative of God, the Word – through whom the world was made and by whose power it is upheld – was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
More in The Search for Happiness
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Learning to Live with Fallenness
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