Happiness Begins When the Ego Dies

‘The reason most people are not happy,’ says Venerable Fulton Sheen, ‘is because they want to be happy in their own way and without any purchase price.’

LEFT: “Success” by fran_kie. RIGHT: Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), “Crucifixion.”
LEFT: “Success” by fran_kie. RIGHT: Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), “Crucifixion.” (photo: Shutterstock / Wikimedia Commons)

The 2022 American Family Survey was recently conducted and published by Deseret News. Among other interesting sociological trends, the survey report identified that liberal Americans are significantly less happy — less satisfied with life and their mental health — than their more conservative counterparts.

What we must remember is that there is one factor that effects happiness and contentment more than anything else, beneath all the sociological data and psychological profiles, beneath any political persuasion. That single factor is faith and religion.

Poets, philosophers and theologians have known this reality for centuries, but a dissonance has become more apparent and acute in our post-modern age as more and more Americans have rejected the importance of religion, especially since World War II. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the economy was booming; cities were expanding rapidly; more Americans had access to higher education; many American households had new suburban homes and appliances; most of these same households had vehicles and extra discretionary income.

At the same time, sociologists C. Wright Mills and David Riesman noted an anxiety and loneliness among Americans, especially youth, that had not been present in previous generations. In her cultural bombshell, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan applied the same anxiety, loneliness and disillusionment to modern American women. The Beat Movement gave literary expression to those feelings. It is not hard to discover the conspicuous absence of faith and religion as a factor that would answer the anxious longings of that generation.

Watching this cultural malaise take place, Venerable Fulton Sheen understood the problem and sought to bring principles of faith and religion back into the conversation. In 1953, he wrote a brief article, simply entitled “Contentment,” which became the first chapter in his aptly-titled book, Way to Happiness.

There, the philosopher identified four causes of discontent. The first was egotism, which we also know by the name of pride. The next three were envy, covetousness and jealousy. These three are similar enough that we can include them all within envy. Thus, pride and envy, the two most difficult capital sins to excise from life, were the two biggest obstacles to human contentment. Throughout all of his career in writing and preaching, which spanned more than half a century (from 1920 to 1979), Sheen taught again and again that pride and envy are mitigated particularly by the virtue of humility. Closely related to humility is the virtue of religion, which gives to God what is his due, before seeking what might be due to oneself. These are lessons that are still applicable nearly seven decades after he wrote them.

Then, in an article that bore an even simpler title, “Happiness” — which was published posthumously in the 1982 book On Being Human — Sheen reminded readers that “happiness is conditioned on two things: an overall purpose in life and, second, the crushing of egotism and selfishness.” The first condition, “overall purpose,” he defined as the pursuit of a “goal of life” that would “satisfy the highest reaches of personality.” “Life,” he continued, “is not satisfied by three more days of living, but by unending immortality.” Quite simply, he meant the fulfillment of all desire in Heaven, something that the scholars and pundits and artists of the mid-20th century had missed or forgotten.

His second condition followed from the first. The ego must be submitted to the plans of the Divine Other if we are to achieve the purpose we seek. It is always necessary to remove the self, the ego, from primacy. Sheen minced no words on this point: “So long as there remains the ego or selfishness by which we affirm our pleasure over others, we are consumed by an inner unhappiness.”

Without such a disposition of self, abiding happiness cannot take root. That reality has not changed from the time that the good bishop wrote until the time that the life-satisfaction survey was conducted and published in 2022.

As he concluded his commentary, Sheen noted the contrast between the Christian disciple and the follower of the wide road of modernity. “But even though it be difficult,” he opined, “there is a peace and a joy about the pursuit of Divine Happiness which the egotist cannot understand.”

For a person to be happy, to be content and satisfied with life, it is necessary for the “balloon of our egotism” to be “shot full of holes,” which makes way for an “influx of light and love.” Such light and love can only be had, in the fullest measure, by following the Beatitudes of Jesus; and by following Our Blessed Lord on his trek to Calvary to lay down his own life for the good of others. That is the essence of the Christian moral life.

Sheen knew the human moral condition as well or better than anyone else. “Everybody wants to be happy,” he wrote. This includes both the wealthy and the poor; persons of every ethnic and cultural heritage; both liberals and conservatives. Still, “America’s pastor” offered the explanation for why some people don’t find happiness as easily, whether in the 1950s or in the 2020s: “The reason most people are not happy is because they want to be happy in their own way and without any purchase price. Paradoxical as it may seem, happiness begins when the ego dies.” That is, they worship at the altar of self.

Now that we have the answer to the ultimate question, let’s all spend a little time and effort letting our own balloons of egotism be shot through with God’s grace. Let’s stop worshiping at the altar of self. The world and our homes will be better, happier places because of that effort.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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