Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

by Scot McKnight


Given, lost, regained.

Standing in the Etruscan village of Bagnoregio in the evening light and peering up the long footbridge toward tiny Civita di Bagnoregio—dimly lit, softly colored, rising gracefully into the blue of the sky—one thinks naturally of the final leg of Dante's or Bunyan's pilgrimage. Perhaps, one mutters, if I make the trek toward Civita, I will discover the village of final felicity. Alas, closer analysis, or even consulting something so common as Rick Steves' Italy 2008, reveals that Civita—once the proud of home St. Bonaventure, who himself traveled the path to beatific union with God—sits atop tufa. The soft rock has crumbled over the centuries, sending most of Civita's homes and their foundations tumbling into the valleys below. Not much remains. Civita under the light of day is a fraction of its old, proud self. Indeed, Bagnoregio has become the town that Civita di Bagnoregio once was. A few 80-year old widows linger in Civita, and if my experience is any guide, they are none too happy—about visitors or about their future.

Like Civita di Bagnoregio, happiness is crumbling before our very eyes. Is it lost? Can it be regained? The story of happiness is Milton's.

Happiness: "O fairest of Creation"

There was a day—indeed, an entire century, the 18th—when happiness sat atop the potential destiny for each of us. Mappers claimed they knew how to get there and could show us. When Jeremy Bentham, in his 1776 Fragment of Government, declared that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong," he reduced a century of thinking into a single aphorism. His formula offered happiness as the moral map of mankind and made it what the Declaration of Independence said it was: a right wrapped up with freedom and equality. Unfortunately, the 18th century was also when the genuine quest for happiness ended and the "rodeo got started," to quote the earthy Pacific Northwest essayist William Kittredge.1 Rodeos are leg-slapping fun, but they are hardly what classical philosophers and serious theologians had in mind when they fashioned the human quest under terms like eudaimonia or felicitas or beatitas. "Increasingly," Darrin McMahon's brilliant survey of happiness says of the 18th century, "men and women were coming to think of the world as a place where human beings might legitimately cultivate if not paradise, then at least a garden of earthly delights." Not that all thought of following the opulent, decadent maps created by Julien Offray de la Mettrie or Giacomo Casanova or the Marquis de Sade; a disciplined American example was Benjamin Franklin.

For whatever reasons—McMahon's study points us to new attitudes toward pleasure and sin (let's blame the French and the Enlightenment), to earthly happiness as a sign of grace (Aquinas and the Reformers), and to delight in God's good earth as a good (Locke)—heaven came to earth, or at least it was on the horizon. Church folks wrote books like I Want to be Happy and The School of Happiness and The Theory of Happiness, or the Art of Rendering Oneself So. "Drawing heavily on Newtonian science and Locke's new science of the mind," McMahon says of the unabashed optimists who left their mark on the age, "they placed human beings unstained by original sin, programmed for the pursuit of pleasure, and ready, willing, and able to improve their earthly lot." Thus, the question Westerners have sought to answer ever since is not "How can I be saved?" but "How can I be happy?"

The happiness rodeo shows no sign of letting up. On Amazon.com, a happiness site if there ever was one, I typed in "Happiness" and in an instant I discovered there were 263,716 titles connected to that keyword. Jesus rivals happiness at 259,497. Happiness is an industry; it is also a "fairest of creation" clearly still on the horizon for some: see The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life you Want and Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Matthieu Ricard and Daniel Goleman think happiness a skill in Happiness: A Guide to Life's Most Important Skill, while Eric Wilson, evidently not so sanguine about the industry, writes Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. We find Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, wherein Martin Seligman puts the "hap" back in "happiness" by highlighting happy words: "authentic" and "new" and "positive" and "realize" and "potential" and "lasting" and "fulfillment." Urgency carries the day for Robert Holden: Happiness Now! Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST. Sylvia Boorstein's got the tip: Happiness is an Inside Job. Somehow we know our old friend Freud, who himself wasn't big on joy, would come to the table with The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy (by Edward M. Hallowell). Happiness experts know our relations with others are part of the mix, so Alexandra Stoddard writes about Happiness for Two and gives us 75 Secrets for Finding Joy Together. I haven't even cracked the spine on any of these books, and perhaps my cynicism about the happiness rodeo is showing through, but I have my doubts. We need to get back to the bigger question, because that is the problem here.

 What is happiness? Richard Layard, one of Britain's best-known economists and a world expert on inequality, doesn't shy from the challenge: "Happiness is feeling good, and misery is feeling bad." He continues: "It is supremely important because it is our overall motivational device." Not to put too fine of a point on it, "The search for good feeling is the mechanism that has preserved and multiplied the human race." The philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht, well-known author of a book about doubt, says "Happiness is feeling good." Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who strikes me as hilarious (and happy), claims happiness is "the you-know-what-I-mean-feeling." Even Darrin McMahon, after his poetic exploration of the history of ideas, finds a way—when his final chapter comes to the contemporary situation—to morph the word "happiness" into feeling good. For two centuries voices in the rodeo have announced that happiness is pleasure, it is a right, it is achievable in the here and now, and they or at least their publisher knows how to get it. For such folks, happiness is subjective, it is feeling good about myself, and, as both Layard and Arthur C. Brooks have argued, it is worthy of central focus in both politics and economics. And yet, like Civita's tufa, this understanding of happiness—so widely shared, so commonsensical—has long been eroding before our eyes.

Happiness: "Defac't, deflourd, and now to Death devote?"

Long ago, of course, Jesus and St. Paul, Augustine and Luther warned against any conception of happiness anchored exclusively in this world. Not only were the latter two bathed in the early Christian eschatological hope that sanctified suffering in this world as the lot of those who followed the crucified Lord, but they had both absorbed enough dualism from Plato to know that gazing at de civitate Dei turned one's eyes from the civitas terrena. We are, they both thought, civitas peregrina, resident aliens in the vale of tears. Luther absorbed and extended Augustine's anthropology in a way that turned the Christian into simul iustus et peccator because, after all, the righteousness of a Christian is iustitia aliena. This alien righteousness dug deeply into the heart, but it what it created was a yearning for the City of God.

Hegel, with all nuances now put to the side, narrowed down human yearning to the dialectic of history. "History," Hegel complained, "is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history." Then along came the Marxist socialist experiment, its official view expressed in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia: "In the history of moral consciousness, happiness has been considered an innate human right; but in practice, in a society of antagonisms, as F. Engels pointed out, the oppressed classes' striving toward happiness has always been ruthlessly and 'lawfully' sacrificed to the ruling classes' identical striving." Marxism is dying a slow death, but one of its victims for many was a legitimate pursuit of the right to happiness. Marx's haunting words are these: "The overcoming of religion as the illusory happiness [illusorischen Glücks] of the people is the demand for their real happiness [wirklichen Glücks]." McMahon's words do the job: "A critique of Marx, by contrast, is a critique of the remnants of religion in his philosophy. And the halo of this is happiness." Darwin was at least more optimistic, for he thought the fittest who survived were also the happiest. On Darwin the 20th century built its debunking of happiness.

 It's not just evolutionary schemes that deface happiness. Postmodernist historians and philosophy deflower happiness by reminding us of our "cognitive comas." Hecht, in a book that mixes insight and wisdom with skeptical, bold opinion, lays it out like this: "Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make their weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true." Two pages earlier she opened that envelope: "Most of the strictures we live under are just cultural stories, no more inherently true than the cultural stories of any other period in history." She has hope in the study of history: "What a paralyzing potion culture can be! The antidote is history." Then, turning down the volume of her postmodern historiography, Hecht dispenses some advice: "your worst barrier against happiness is you, your own wrong thinking. Your four problems are these: You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death or terrified of it. As such, your job is to master these four errors in yourself … . None of this comes easily; it has to be practiced a great deal, and it never works completely. However, there is no useful alternative to the effort." Few make it.

Nearly everyone today—including the champions of feeling good—recognizes the problem of happiness in the 21st century. The two studies that focus more on this than the others considered here are those by Layard and Brooks. "There is," Layard tells us, "a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier." And even if Brooks is right in claiming, on the political spectrum, that conservatives have "always been happier than liberals," that doesn't change the big picture: in spite of substantial economic growth, we are not getting happier. Part of the problem is that tests reveal that our happiness is comparative: as long as we have more than our neighbor we are happy. The move from poverty to a more comfortable life, to be sure, does increase a person's happiness, but beyond the basics possessions don't make us happier. Why? It's called the "hedonic treadmill." In brief, the more we have, the more we want, and the more we want the less we are happy. The treadmill keeps running, and it wears us down.

Studies in the last century have also shown that, since we inherit our happiness more than we earn it or find it, we might as well devote the rodeo-like pursuit of happiness to death. Laura Blue's "Is Our Happiness Preordained?" reports that new studies, often focused on identical twins, are revealing once again that happiness is more genetic than anything else. The underlying determinants for happiness are such things as sociability, activism, stability, and conscientiousness, and they come pre-packaged.2 In a step of faith for social scientists, Blue reports the findings of a study in Psychological Science which concludes that "innate personality traits cause happiness." Furthermore, a study of 2 million people reveals that we live a U-shaped curve pattern of happiness: under forty, fortysomething, and older folks—at 44 we reach our nadir of happiness.

Which puts me on the upswing. A friend, Phyllis Palmer, knowing I was reading about happiness, sent me a link to Blue's study while my wife Kris and I were in Aruba for Spring Break. Aruba is advertised as "one happy island," which it is if you follow the definition of feeling good and looking good and being in an idyllic place where the sun is always bright, the waters always aqua blue, and the sand always white. I sought shade under a tiki hut as I pursued my happiness studies. Sitting with me was Kris. I read one book a day on happiness, and, on day three, as I opened up Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, Kris—a psychologist—asked me who he was. When I said he was a psychologist, she informed me what he would be saying: "It's genetic." She was right. It's genetic, and that means lots of those titles on Amazon.com haven't caught up with the psychologists.

But Gilbert goes further. He's into the brain and the frontal lobe and the capacity of humans to do what he calls "nexting" and "imagining." All this dreaming of happiness, as each of us yearningly gazes upon Civita's potential glory in the evening sun, comes from the frontal lobe. Which gets us all in trouble because imagination leads to emotions and hope and to endless frustration and that's the problem with happiness: we dream about it, but it is our frontal lobe that actually creates our sense of our own happiness. "We are," Gilbert informs us, "the apes that learned to look forward because doing so enables us to shop among the many fates that might befall us and select the best one"—even if it doesn't come to pass. The future, after all, is "fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope."  How different? "If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we'd be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we'd be too deluded to find our slippers." As for all the cheery how-to books on Amazon.com: "Some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief." Those 18th-century optimists were wasting their time. The rodeo can't go on endlessly, and that one lonely title about melancholy might be nearer the mark for many.

In Gilbert's valley below Civita we learn that we can't rely entirely on the frontal lobe. So, what does Gilbert—or any of these folks—suggest?

Happiness: "and made new flesh Regenerate grow instead"

Gilbert observes that, "when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates [for wisdom from experience], they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings about tomorrow [=happiness] is to see how others are feeling today." Happiness can only be generated genuinely if we stop imagining a future and instead live in the real world by listening to the wisdom of those who have walked the bridge before us.

Daniel Gilbert's surrogacy theory finds expression in ancient wisdom for both McMahon and Paul Wadell, but it is Wadell's superb study that is our focus for now. Wadell turns to Augustine and Aquinas, behind whom lurk not only Plato and Aristotle but also the apostle Paul: "The trajectory of our lives can be read as an endless pursuit for whatever we think will satisfy us, content us, and fulfill us." Let's call it happiness. "The trouble, however"—and here's where the voices in the rodeo distract us—"is that we are often confused, and easily misled, about what will really fulfill us." And for both Augustine and Aquinas, "happiness does not reside in having my wants and desires satisfied, unless I learn to want and desire what is best" (emphasis added). "Aristotle and Aquinas taught that happiness is found in goodness, in what Aristotle called the life of virtue and Aquinas called a life of love and friendship with God." Yes. "Happiness," Augustine and Aquinas teach, "and goodness are one; therefore, in order to be happy we must become good." And here's a word that will shut the rodeo down: "holiness brings happiness." Indeed, there is an inevitable corollary to classical Christian thinking about happiness: "Happiness is something deeper, something much more lasting and stable than pleasure, because happiness comes from excellence in goodness." Finally, Waddell reminds us, in the "Christian life, we are not the primary agents of our happiness, God is." So, ultimately, it is about God: "The happy life is to love God wholeheartedly and faithfully because God is the perfection of goodness, the supreme and most excellent good (summum bonum)."

Bonaventure got it right. Civita's foundations might crumble, but—to adapt the words of the author of Hebrews—the great saint from Civita looked for a city who was God.

Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. He is the author most recently of Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Baylor Univ. Press), written with Hauna Ondrey.

1. "Buckaroos," in Kittredge's collection Owning It All (Graywolf Press, 2002), p. 31.

2. www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1721954,00.html

Books discussed in this essay:

Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It (Basic Books, 2008).

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006).

Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong—A History of What Really Makes Us Happy (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, 2005).

Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006)

Paul Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

Most ReadMost Shared