‘Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence’. So wrote Aristotle in perhaps his best-known philosophical work, the Nicomachean Ethics, in the fourth century BC.
Whether or not you agree with Aristotle, you’d probably admit that the pursuit of happiness seems to be an all-pervasive contemporary obsession. We are continually baffled by a variety of self-proclaimed gurus, bewildered by an endless supply of self-improvement courses, and bothered by the siren call of those who promise the secret of how to get rich quick (for a modest fee). Each of them claims that they – and they alone – can enlighten us in our search for happiness.
In our troubled, angst-ridden twenty-first century world, it’s hardly surprising that self-improvement literature is so popular. Micki McGee in his book Self-Help Inc. (2005) estimated that in the USA alone ‘the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, constitutes a 2.48-billion dollars a-year industry.’ It’s undoubtedly grown even bigger since then: and all in the name of pursuing happiness. This trend has led political satirist Christopher Buckley, in his 1998 book God is my Broker to assert: ‘The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one’.
Tal Ben-Shanar was a teacher in ‘Positive Psychology’ at the University of Harvard, where his lectures were among the most popular courses in the university’s history. Ben-Shanar identifies three failed archetypes in the pursuit of happiness.
The first is the rat-racer – who subordinates the present to the future, suffering now in the hope of some anticipated gain. Their maxim might be ‘no pain, no gain’. The second is the hedonist – who concentrates solely on their present enjoyment of life, regardless of the future consequences. Their maxim might be ‘seek pleasure, avoid pain’. The third, and worst of all, is the nihilist – who has lost all zest for life, and has neither sense of future purpose, nor enjoyment of the present moment. Their despairing maxim might be ‘no pleasure, all pain’.
Ben-Shanar goes on to suggest that the key to happiness is to find the right balance between present experience and future benefit; between seeking pleasure and finding meaning.
I’m afraid Ben-Shanar’s thesis is not one that I fully ‘buy into’ (to use the dreadful kind of Americanism that litters the self-help literature of popular psychology and philosophy). And perhaps the reason I take some issue with it can be traced all the way back to Aristotle himself.
Aristotle’s idea that happiness is the whole aim and end of human existence is one that troubles me. There are some things that give meaning to human existence, and human endeavour, that have very little to due with happiness. One of these is our sense of duty, as emphasised by Immanuel Kant, in his book the Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1788. Kant’s position is that moral goodness is more basic to ethics than good consequences, and that it is right motivation – i.e. the obligation to duty – that is our chief criteria for defining a person and/or that person’s actions as good. Kant suggests that ‘dutifulness’ is the same as ‘seeking the highest good’ (which, for Christians, of course, is God); and that seeking the highest good is the true path to fulfilment.
Many of us will soon be celebrating Easter. For Christians, Easter is the supreme vindication of the power of love, and a feast-day that is full of joy: ‘We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song’, as St Augustine puts it. But Easter Day without Good Friday is only half the story. The events of Holy Week can hardly be described as happy: and for Christians to call the day of Jesus’ death ‘Good’ Friday may strike non-believers as perverse. Was Jesus pursuing happiness in those final days of his earthly life? Was it (to adjust Aristotle slightly) ‘the whole aim and end of this human’s existence?’ Any reasonable answer would be ‘No’. But Jesus’ sense of duty – holding fast to a difficult course and a costly cause – carried him through the undoubted agonies and unhappiness of his arrest, trial, crucifixion and death. For Jesus was seeking the highest good – and for him that was meaning and purpose enough.
So, Pasg Hapus – Happy Easter! But, more importantly, may it be a meaningful and fulfilled Easter.
Fr Andrew Pearce