How Happiness Happens
Real happiness depends on first looking for God, who alone can make us happy.
What must I do to be happy? Is there a recipe out there I need to get hold of? If so, what are the ingredients? And how will I know which proportions to put in?
Blaise Pascal could certainly tell me, but the recipe he had in mind would not finally depend on anything I might do or not do. It is simply not possible, says Pascal, to arrive at real and lasting happiness as a result of following a recipe. Any more than one can obtain virtue by reading the right books. Not even his books. For all the good they contain, set down in language of the most astonishing clarity, in the end they cannot make anyone happy. Nothing we do is that empowering. Unlike sausage and pancakes, this is not a meal that anyone can make.
On the other hand, we are not completely helpless in the happiness sweepstakes. Because, however limited the exercise, reason and will do have a part to play in the matter of finding happiness. But not by any sort of direct frontal assault. Real happiness depends on first looking for something else, namely God, who alone is in a position to make us happy.
“There are only three sorts of people,” Pascal tells us in the Pensées, his unfinished masterpiece in defense of the Christian religion. “There are those who have found God and serve him; those who are busy seeking him and have not found him; those who live without either seeking or finding him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy, those in the middle are unhappy and reasonable.”
A pretty steep learning curve, I’d say. And please note the planted axiom, which is that God may not wish to show himself to those who have set out to find him. At least not while the search goes on. Never mind showering them with happiness. And while it remains eminently reasonable that they continue to look for God, spending their lives in unceasing search of the absent deity, God is not the least bit constrained to reveal himself. It is not as if God, by some iron necessity of the universe, were required to give us a nice day. And so, if Pascal is right, what it all comes down to is that so long as the search goes on, happiness remains an elusive goal. And what does that mean but that, notwithstanding the sheer numbers of men and women in constant and frenetic search of it, happiness is not the supreme good. People whose lives, therefore, are obsessively organized around so illusory an imperative will need to be disabused. They will simply have to let go of their fixation.
This fact was given, it seems to me, quite withering confirmation in the following piece of advice offered to a young married couple by Father Julián Carrón, president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. Asked to celebrate their wedding, he realized in talking to them that each was convinced that the other was there to make him/her happy. “And I made them understand that the other cannot make them happy, because their need for happiness (this elementary experience we all find inside, this need for truth, for beauty, for justice) is greater than the whole universe…”
Up against the attraction we ought to have for God, no more insistent than which can be imagined, everything else looks pretty paltry. “Everything is small, tiny,” he told them, “for the capacity of the soul: husband, wife, work, success, politics… If we do not understand this, we are like everyone else. Why? Because we confuse what we like with what corresponds to us.”
So, my happiness is not the defining theme of the universe? Not the centerpiece of this or any other cosmos? A fearsome prospect, to be sure, and probably un-American. But Carrón is spot on. “We must decide,” he tells us, “whether we want to take our need for happiness seriously… if we want to take our humanity seriously! Or do we want to do, as everyone does, what we want, what we like?” That way lies, not happiness, but madness and misery. Because, at the end of the day, if the standard, the governing norm for my life, is only what I want and what I like, then Christ becomes an optional extra, a disposable ingredient in a recipe that really does not need him at all.
How well Pope St. John Paul II understood this in his great encyclical on the moral life! “Acting is morally good,” he told us in Veritatis Splendor, “when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness” (Art 72).