‘Happiness is the truth’: brief reflections on the common good

Pharrell Williams may be onto something. Happiness plays a central role in our lives, of course. My hunch is that happiness also reflects the life of God in us–that business about humans being created in the image of God isn’t just about rationality and the freedom of the will. Or, rather, the freedom and rationality that we exercise (on our good days, when we’re using them well) best show forth the divine image when exercised joyfully and compassionately.

We all know that happiness is important. We strive for it but so often fail to achieve it. We find it in the most unlikely (we think) places. And we don’t think of happiness as contributing to the common good. The US Declaration of Independence suggests that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is one of our God-given rights, yet we miss its profound importance for our life together. We tend to think that people who achieve great things make the greatest contributions to the world. And I would certainly not want to argue against key advances in science, in medicine, even in technology (without which I wouldn’t be writing this blog). But I don’t see that those things make us happier.

I think we need to value far more highly the people whose contribution to our world is happiness–joy, peace and contentment. If those are the really important people, then our priorities have to shift a bit. People with intellectual disabilities often make this kind of contribution, as John Franklin Stephens suggests in a recent blog post. And, of course, children very often make this kind of contribution. Children like these:


We have got it all wrong, I’m afraid. We, in the comfortable houses in the safe places of the world have come to value our security and prosperity, our comfort. But we’re not happy. We need children and those whose joy has been tested; we need to extend ourselves on behalf of those in need and in danger. Isaiah calls the people of Israel to ‘care your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’ (58.7).

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily;           your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard…

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,                   then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

If that’s not a recipe for happiness, and for the common good, I don’t know what is.

How to buy happiness

I still miss David Foster Wallace. I wish he were still around to say the sorts of things he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College. Fortunately, some researchers are finding evidence to support Wallace’s claims about the dangers of self-centeredness. This is of particular interest to me just now because both of my sons are overawed by the richest men in the world. Wealth, they seem to think, makes people important, worthy of our interest, and–most of all–happy. The evidence, described in an article in The Week (excerpted from an article by Michael Lewis published in The New Republic), suggests otherwise.

Not only does more money fail to increase your happiness, it seems to infect your soul. The studies found a correlation between selfish acts and even dishonesty (in the service of gain) and wealth. My 11-year-old son, who dreams of being a world-class soccer player (and compensated accordingly), listened as I read the first several paragraphs of the article, and that’s saying something. He listened, because the article begins with a wonderful description of a tennis camp (really, you should read this article–it’s good, and it won’t take long) in which the lines were drawn not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ but between the ‘givers’ and the ‘takers’.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in terms of happiness, the ‘givers’ are the ‘haves’ and the ‘takers’ are the ‘have-nots’–regardless of their net worth (and generalization extends only to those for whom net worth is an applicable category). In fact–and this is the lesson I took away from the article–the only way some extra money can make you happy is if you spend it on someone else. And there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days, so many opportunities that the whole word could become a happier place if we all were to treat our neighbors to a meal, or a tent, or whatever they need most urgently.

So, in a sense, money can buy happiness. You just can’t buy it for yourself.