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Apologetics and the Science of Happiness

January 23, 2018


“I just want you to be happy.”

These words are some of the most confusing in all of man’s vocabulary. Through those simple words, many lives have been restored. However, through those same words, many lives have been wrecked. To take an extreme example, imagine a man with an addiction to heroin. The man who gives him his fix states these words. The man who drags him kicking and screaming to a local rehabilitation program states the exact same words. Yet the end results of both situations are vastly different. As another example, a husband and wife decide to get divorced and they both say to one another, “I just want you to be happy,” yet the lives of the children will never be the same.

Philosophers, pastors, teachers, and mentors have echoed man’s natural desire for happiness since the beginning of time. In many philosophy 101 classes, regardless of culture, ethnicity, religion, or creed, this is the first principle from which our attempts to make sense of the world flow. The desired end is always the same, but it is often the road to that end that marks the great difference.

Fr. Robert Spitzer once laid out four levels of happiness after reviewing Greek and Christian writers. These are: laetus, felix, beatitudo, and sublime beatitudo. Laetus is happiness in a thing, perhaps food or a new toy, but this happiness is short-lived and we know it can’t completely fulfill us. Felix is a happiness based on competition, such as “I am better at math than Lucy,” but this happiness is unstable as the constant pursuit to outdo those around us, should we fail, could lead us bitter and broken. Beatitudo comes from our altruistic behavior and seeing the good in all those we come into contact with; however, while this happiness is better than felix, we might make our happiness contingent upon being everything to everyone. Lastly, sublime beatitudo is the full perfection of happiness, particularly the fullness of the transcendentals: beauty, truth, and goodness.

With this in mind, any person in their right mind would naturally ask, “How do I attain the highest level of happiness?” So often we get stuck on the first level of happiness and focus on accruing numerous things, nice houses, big cars, etc., but this has been shown time and again to be a false sense of contentment. As the sage spiritualist Jim Carrey stated, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” We’ve seen the seemingly irrational suicides of men who had every bit of laetus, like Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, who in the eyes of the world ought to have been the happiest men on planet earth. In America, during arguably the most affluent era of history, only 33% say that they are happy overall.

Yet time and again we see the desire for fame, wealth, and honor listed as non-negotiables for a fulfilling life.  

The next stages of happiness, felix and beatitudo, which are certainly steps in the right direction, can still potentially come up short in true, interior fulfillment. Felix, for example, can help a man or woman’s drive to be excellent in their work and their pursuits. Competition is a healthy passion which can motivate us to do things we never dreamed of. However, it can also lead to an unhealthy fear of our inadequacies and put us in depression. Beatitudo is also healthy and a great reminder that we indeed are called to live for others. This sort of happiness can lead people to start soup kitchens or build homes for the homeless, but it has also led to violence in the name of helping the helpless.  

I think many of us would agree that we all ought to be aiming for sublime beatitudo, and I’m sure many of our readers can easily see the role that a relationship with Christ will play in the growth of our overall happiness; however, with the rise of the nones who have very little interest in religion as a source of happiness, how is it that perhaps we can and ought to use this natural desire for happiness to better engage the path of virtue as a first step in the process of evangelization?

My assertion is that we must have a robust apologetic of happiness.  

This apologetic would aim to awaken the senses of the interlocutor to the vast expanse of potential happiness that is offered because of the very fact that they are human. This apologetic could not rest on the esoteric religious experience as many of the “nones” we would encounter have already experienced religion in their own subjective way and have decided to step away. So simply telling them that Jesus is what will make them happy will probably either be brushed off as it reminds them of the childhood religion they left, or it is so abstract of a concept that they have absolutely no context from which to understand the statement.

Rather this apologetic would need to focus on what is important in the lives of those we want to reach. In the book Churchless, put together by the folks over at the Barna Group, there’s a poll that was taken in which the most important life goals of the unchurched were listed. The top four are: staying in good health, career success, being a good parent, and being comfortable financially. Within those goals, there is a healthy mixture of laetus, felix, and beatitudo. Now what I am suggesting is that as evangelists we need to be able to speak directly to these types of concerns. How can Christianity offer to deepen good health, career success, money, and parenting to such a degree that the religiously unaffiliated cannot ignore it? How is it that making Jesus the Lord of our life practically applies to these concerns and affects them in such a way that the start of evangelization and an introduction to Christ might become a real possibility? How is it that we can begin with laetus, felix, and beatitudo in order to introduce the highest happiness, sublime beatitudo, which is Christ Himself as the fulfillment of beauty, truth, and goodness?

The apologetic of happiness would by necessity begin with a recognition of our desire to be happy. Money, health, and being a good parent all stem from our natural desire to live a life of happiness. The beauty of the Christian thing is that the vision of these aspects of human life is that of balance. Do we need to work hard and make money? Yes. Do we need to be concerned with our physical health? Yes. But Christianity deepens our understanding of these goals. It teaches that money is needed to provide but not to fulfill, and that while seeking physical health requires self-discipline and can assist in overall well-beingboth excellent goals to attainthe healthiest man alive isn’t necessarily the happiest. Christianity does not negate these things. Rather, they give them a deeper meaning and a healthy sense of detachment so that we don’t seek these good things as if they were sublime beatitudo itself. 

Money, career, and health, all aspects of the first two levels of happiness, can disappear in an instant. We’ve seen numerous men and women who have these things take their own lives or live in utter depression for years. This isn’t to say they aren’t important but rather to put them in context. Indeed, these are good and wonderful aspects of human flourishing; but again, they are not something that lasts forever.

One that stands out to me is the desire to be a good parent. Now you are beginning to reach the third level of happiness. In the Ted Talk by Dr. Robert Waldinger, What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness, we learn that after seventy-five years of research, they found that one thing is better equipped than most to make us happy: good relationships. He states that good social connections lead to happier and physically healthier lives. The problem is that what we want is a quick fix. But that isn’t the nature of relationships. Relationships are hard work. They require sacrifice and an emptying of our own egos. Communal and family life is the foundational principle of a happy life, and I believe that in the necessity of an apologetic of happiness, we need to offer the abstract ideal of human happiness, but then equalize that with the very practical reality of having a deep relationship with those we intend to evangelize.

Climbing the levels of happiness requires us to slowly eschew our own faults and failings, and to recognize that perhaps what we thought made us happy is only the first step. This ladder can often appear as a difficult climb ahead, so when we use the words, “I just want you to be happy,” we need to be viscerally aware of the fact that the happiness we are presenting is going to hurt, in the sense that our egos will be tested, but also restore in the loving embrace of Christ’s divine life which can best be found in the sublime beatitudo.