How to be truly happyFATHER JOHN HARDON, S.J.
One of the deepest mysteries of life is that of happiness.
I am not exactly referring to happiness in the next life in heaven with God, but here on earth among men. How is it that what everyone is looking for, so few seem to find? And how is it that what all the wise men of history have been teaching, so few seem to have learned? It cannot be that people's desire for happiness is not strong enough. It is on examination the strongest impulse of human nature. Nor can it be that God does not want us to be happy already this side of heaven. He does not want us to be sad.
It must only be either because people do not understand what true happiness is or are not willing to pay the price to achieve it. These must be the reasons. Given the fact of man's universal hunger for happiness and God's goodness -- not to say justice -- towards His noblest visible creation, the absence of happiness in so many people can only be due to ignorance or failure to take the proper means. You might ask: why go into this huge subject? Why not deal with something more specific? And besides, what has all of this to do with the spiritual life?
The subject of happiness is not huge at all. It is very specific. In fact, it is as particular as each one of us in the world of our own personality. It is the one aspect of the spiritual life that we cannot pass over at the risk of talking about holiness without ever arriving there. If I were to coin a homely definition of sanctity, I would say that it is the achievement of true happiness. The saints are the only really happy people on earth.
The logical division of our title is to ask "What is true happiness?" and to find out "How do you get it?"
What is true happiness?
As a background for this question we might for a few moments reflect on false happiness. It has to be false, seeing how many people are pursuing what they think will make them happy and are disappointed. True happiness is not found in riches as anyone who knows the wealthy can attest. One of the most unhappy men I ever met was in New York State on his square-mile estate. A multi-millionaire, he had in the process of amassing so much wealth lost his Catholic Faith. As we drove in his limousine, driven by the chauffeur, through twenty miles of garden, he kept repeating, as he sipped from a glass of cider in one hand and held on in the automobile with the other, "This is all for my pleasure, all for my pleasure." But I found out from my four hours of conversation with him he was terribly unhappy. I am pleased to report that he eventually died with the sacraments partly because I entered his life. He did not want to receive me, but did so to please his saintly sister. She had been praying for thirty years for his return to God. She died shortly after he did. Her mission was accomplished.
True happiness does not consist in sex indulgence. That brings its victims only remorse and degradation and disease and an early grave. It does not consist in immense learning or academic honors or success in industry or one of the trades. It does not consist in acquiring a reputation or becoming the idol of millions in sports or on the screen. It does not consist in reaching the top of the ladder in politics or high authority in Church or state. I know enough famous people to be able to say that for many of them their fame is their greatest trial and for some, as they have told me, a crucifixion. On a lower level, happiness is not found in drink or entertainment or fine clothes or physical beauty or in any one of the thousand ways that the advertising industry keeps telling the people, and that millions are gullible enough to believe.
True happiness has three characteristics that are never absent, but always in greater or lesser measure together. True happiness is spiritual. It is generous and it is always related to God. In order, then, to be really and not spuriously happy we have to work for happiness in these three ways: in the spirit, the practice of generosity, and in relationship to God. At this point we turn from asking what true happiness is to how we can achieve it.
How to achieve true happiness?
We begin by asking ourselves what we mean by saying that authentic happiness is spiritual. You might say that it is not material. True enough. Rut more accurately it means that for a person to be happy the first condition is that his or her moral life be sound. A good moral life is the first and fundamental condition for valid happiness. By the moral life I mean the practice of the virtues of honesty, of chastity, of meekness and patience, of humility and diligence. In a word, the happy person is a morally good person. And the deeper and stronger his moral integrity, the greater is that person's happiness. Dishonest people are not happy; unchaste people are not happy; angry people, impatient people, lazy people, proud people are not happy. No matter how many speeches or books they give or write to the contrary, they are not happy.
This, I think, deserves further commentary because not all virtuous people seem to be happy and, as far as we can tell, not all apparently ill-behaved persons are sad. We have a problem. How do we deal with it? First of all, appearances are deceiving.
A virtuous person undergoing some difficulty is understandably oppressed. That is what problems do -- they tend to depress us. So perhaps this virtuous person shows the strain that he is under. Or it may be that he is not fully resigned to the trial or suffering to which he is being subjected and to that extent he is wanting in perfect virtue. So we have another equation: virtue makes for happiness; greater virtue makes for greater happiness; and perfect virtue, as far as we can talk about it in this life, makes for perfect happiness because perfect virtue includes resignation to the acceptance of a trial. Moreover, and more profoundly, true happiness, being spiritual, is deeply interior. It abides in the inmost recesses of one's soul. It may, therefore, coexist with struggle and suffering, with tribulation and with the heaviest cross. Could anything be clearer than Christ's own prediction in the beatitudes? "Lord," we are tempted to say, "are these beatitudes? Happy are those who... " and then you look at the who and you are all but terrified. "Happy? Did I hear You right, Lord? Did You say happy?" "I said happy. Happy are those who mourn." "Lord, I believe You, but what on earth or in heaven do You mean?" Happy those who are poor, the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers. Christ even foretold how happy would be those who are persecuted in the cause of right. There is a center to the human spirit and a core in the heart of man which can be in peace and in joy, not in spite of, but actually because the outer man is undergoing tribulation in a just cause. In fact, when we are thus persecuted, you know what the Savior says, we are not just to rejoice, we are to dance for joy.
In spite of all the rhetoric to the contrary, therefore, and it takes a lot of faith to draw this conclusion, virtue is its own reward although the reward may be so deeply within a man's spirit that everything else in him, as in Job, may be in profound pain. Part of this spiritual joy is the confident expectation of a heavenly reward. I am happy now, although perhaps in trial, because I am sure that the trial will one day cease and the joys of heaven, God tells me, will never end. What is an ending trial compared to endless joy? Many, many times I have comforted myself with this thought.
The second condition for true happiness is generosity. People who are generous are happy people. Have you ever met a truly happy, but selfish person? There is something in our human nature that clamors for expression in giving ourselves to others. Have you ever watched a loving mother at the bed of her sick child, tenderly caring for her offspring after perhaps many sleepless nights and with scarcely any food, yet she is serenely happy because she is giving of herself to someone she dearly loves? There is the story, or rather cluster of stories, about Maryann, published in a small paperback that I commend to all of you called Mission Fulfilled. It describes in about one hundred pages the heartwarming events in the life of a young patient of the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters for the care of those with incurable disease. Maryann was allowed to become a Dominican tertiary before she died at the ripe age of thirteen. Her grave is marked with her family and her religious name. Through the years she was with the Sisters -- so the book reads and the Sisters who knew her tell me -- she was, along with her painful illness, very, very happy. But why? Because she made every effort, sometimes not appreciated, to make the other patients comfortable, relieve their pain, offer them water, speak to them for a long time with her childish prattle, until they died. I have seen aged men assisting their less-able fellow residents in a home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Hardly able to walk themselves, they were positively radiant because they were able to help their more disabled companions. It was often the blind leading the blind. I have seen husbands come home from a hard day's work, tired and physically worn out, suddenly beam as they entered their home and caught sight of the wife and children for whom they had been working all day.
All of this we have seen and in many ways experienced ourselves, but there is more to this formula for true happiness -- the second level of our reflection -- than just the satisfaction of seeing someone we have helped obviously pleased. They are pleased, so we are pleased, too. It is deeper than that. As with the practice of virtue in general, so here with generosity, the true happiness that comes from kindness is something different from the natural pleasure of doing good. I am not discounting that or denying it, but we are talking about something more. Let me explain. It may happen -- and the more we try to grow in holiness, the more likely it will happen -- that those we try and actually help may not appreciate our efforts. I hope you have lived long enough to experience that. People may even resent what they consider an intrusion, for a variety of reasons that are valid in themselves. They may think us impertinent or actually selfish in what on our part may be a most self-sacrificing deed. Whatever the reason, people do not always recognize what we do for them. And they never, we may feel, appreciate enough what we do. Take the years of generous self-giving of a father and mother to their children only to have these children become later on indifferent to their parents' sacrifices and even ungrateful for all they have received. Take the years of dedicated service that a priest may have given to his people, or a religious to his or her community, only to find him or herself, as they say, put on the shelf, and it may be long before their time. I have seen too much of the sorrow of consecrated souls suffering because of the cold ingratitude from those whom they have served not to know that we are touching here upon mystery. There is no simple equation between doing good for others and feeling good inside. That is why we must go on to the third and most important condition of true happiness, namely, its relationship with God. I have saved this characteristic of real happiness for last because without it we would not be talking about happiness at all.
What does it mean to say that for happiness to be genuine it must be related to God? By this we mean that only God can make us genuinely happy and therefore we must finally look to Him even for our earthly reward. This bears a lot of stress. All genuine happiness, not only in the life to come, but in this life, comes uniquely from God. Do not look to creatures to make you truly happy. If you do you are going to be disappointed not once, or often, but always. On our part this means that we try as far as possible to remain in contact with God. Call it keeping in touch with God or living in the presence of God or being mindful of God or talking with God or turning towards God. How we describe what we must do is not important. What matters absolutely is that we and no one else, not even God Himself, must do this. We must decide and constantly act on our decision to remain united with God. Are we talking about some extraordinary mystical experience or rapture or ecstasy? Not at all. When I wrote these lines that I am sharing with you I did not consult Catherine of Siena or Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. I consulted the Scriptures and, I must add, my own experience.
This is within the reach of every believer who believes in the words of the Savior as He told us the night before He died: "If anyone loves me he will keep my words and my Father will love him and we shall come to him and make our home with him." But, notice that sentence begins with an "if." If anyone really loves Christ he will keep the commandments of Christ and the rest will follow. The secret of happiness is to strive always to do the Master's will, to keep His words no matter what the cost to self-will or self-conceit. We do His will and He, this is really strange, He will satisfy our will. We try to please Him; He will in turn please us.
In His own words, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will love us if we love Them by keeping Their word, and when God loves you, you know it. Knowing that God loves you is happiness. You do not talk about this, you live it. They, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will come to us, and of all the expressions that Christ might have used, He said, "and they will make their home with us"; They will keep us company. This is Christ's own definition of happiness: the awareness of God being at home in our souls. Yes, there are two homes in which the Trinity dwells, one in heaven with the angels and saints and the other on earth in the hearts of those who are doing God's will. And in both homes, although the effects differ in degree, they are essentially the same. What, then, does it mean to be truly happy? It means to experience the presence of God whether by faith and imperfectly in this life, or by vision and without end in the life to come.
Father John A. Hardon. "How to be truly happy." from Spiritual Life in the Modern World (Boston: MA Daughters of St. Paul, 1982): 83-90.
Reprinted with permission from Inter Mirifica.
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000) was a tireless apostle of the Catholic faith. The author of over twenty-five books including Spiritual Life in the Modern World, Catholic Prayer Book, The Catholic Catechism, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholi Catechism, Q & A Catholic Catechism, Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and many other Catholic books and hundreds of articles, Father Hardon was a close associate and advisor of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Order Father Hardon's home study courses here.
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