A Brief History of Happiness
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
In the 5th century BC, a student of Socrates began teaching the pursuit of pleasure as the goal of life. Happiness. Your own happiness! Consider for a moment the momentous challenge this teaching represented—a personal, individualistic philosophy—to a culture steeped in communal worship and servitude to the gods. And while the philosopher, Aristippus, isn’t exactly a household name, the philosophy he founded not only managed to survive, but has woven itself throughout contemporary culture: Hedonism. It’s not hard to imagine why; celebrating pleasure while attempting to eliminate suffering was bound to be popular! But what IS pleasure? Where does one find it? Many things seem pleasurable from a distance, only to dissolve like a mirage when possessed. Is there anything solid on which to build a philosophy of pleasure? A century later, the philosopher Epicurus attempted to do just that, teaching that while pleasure was the greatest good, it was best achieved through living a modest life, seeking knowledge, and limiting desires.
When we say . . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. — Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
For Epicurus, happiness was never to be found in the latest entertainment or newest technology, a frantic sex life or globe-trotting Instagram feed. In our media-saturated culture, the very things for which we clamber to achieve happiness are, for the Epicureans, those things “through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”
Ouch. At this point, you may be asking yourself if possibly this whole enterprise of seeking after pleasure may be wrong footed. Perhaps pleasure isn’t life’s goal. Fair point. In which case, what could we set above pleasure? How much pleasure ought we deny ourselves and for what purpose? Following questions down this road we find ourselves in the community of the Ascetics.
Asceticism (from the Greek word for “exercise”), is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, usually for the purpose of seeking spiritual goals, and is found throughout a broad range of religious traditions. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians (among others) all practice various forms of asceticism, most notably fasting, which I think we can agree, is decidedly NOT hedonistic. True. But does it follow that fasting, like other ascetic practices, is devoid of pleasure? In fact, upon closer examination we may find that what dives the practitioner to fast is the hope of a GREATER pleasure beyond a temporary period of suffering. A severe asceticism may be required of the Buddhist, but the indescribable pleasure of nirvana—union with the divine—remains the driving impetus. Let that soak in. What does it mean that in denying pleasure, we only seek… MORE pleasure?
A bit of semantics may prove useful in parsing-out pleasure; let’s talk about the difference between happiness and joy. While both are commonly used in conversation, (“I’m so happy that pumpkin spice latte is available again”; “that car is his pride and joy”), we don’t use either with much specificity. Even the dictionary isn’t much help. Happiness is defined as “pleasure or contentment”, and Joy as simply “great happiness.” I think we can do better.
Let’s consider “happy” as the simple-carbohydrate of emotion. It’s always good for a quick fix, but after the initial spike, it falls off hard, often leading to an emotional crash. This is because happiness is incompatible with any amount of suffering, difficulty, or challenge, meaning it can only be formed through the simplest and most immediate of sources. In order to stave off emotional cravings, happiness must be continually ingested, leading to a lifestyle we could characterize as hedonistic. And that hamster-wheel is a real taskmaster.
Thankfully not all pleasure is of the quick and easy variety; let’s consider joy. Joy is pleasure that has gained interest in the bank of waiting, challenge, and/or suffering. Unlike happiness, joy is never immediate, never painless, always comes at a cost and therefore possesses much more value. Joy relishes the long-game, it steeps in flavor like a marinating stew. Joy is known in the labor of the artist chipping away on the marble, the banged-knuckles and greasy-stains of the mechanic contorted beneath his engine. Ironically, the strongest experiences of joy are linked to words like “fortitude”, “endurance”, and even “long suffering.”
We are here miles from “happy.”
Work with me: let’s build a happiness continuum. Far to one side, we’ll situate Hedonism’s “happy”, the quick, sugary concoctions that spike emotion and just as quickly fizzle. And while there’s nothing terribly wrong with these experiences, we’ve noted that filling one’s diet with a constant need for such fluff could be seriously detrimental to health. One can not live on happy alone. So let’s move towards the other side of our graph, where we’ll locate Epicurean “joy.” Unafraid of struggle, this joy is earned in the crucible of prolonged effort and is therefore far richer and more nuanced—a taste developed by more discriminating palettes. A good meal can make you happy; joy can be found in the effort of cooking it. Here we’ve learned to limit our consumption of media-driven fads as a path to happiness, showing constraint and possibly even contentment. And yet, these are still passing emotions. The effort is achieved, the goal possessed. In the end we are still left hungry. In order to locate a lasting happiness, we’ll need to track to the far edge of the continuum opposite where we began. Here too is joy, but it is far more like the joy of the Ascetics. This most subtle of joys incorporates the struggle of the Epicureans and adds to it an acceptance of suffering rather than avoidance. In short, it “hacks” the happiness deflating power of suffering and repurposes it in a way that builds a joy on the time-table of eternity.
And it is this form of joy that is found throughout the pages of the Bible, describing the reality of God’s nature and the state of man in relationship with his creator.
…. For the joy set before him he (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2
Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. John 16:20-22
Pain, suffering, “exercise” has its place, but with eternity in view, it is temporary and passing. As in a picture where the source of light only becomes visible through shadow, the parable of creation requires the ineffectual possibility of happiness in order to contrast the brilliant spectacle of true joy. Less we incessantly wander from shallow happiness to shallow happiness, or grow tempted to disregard pleasure altogether (if that was even possible) simply because so many of its springs prove dry, let’s instead seek the true fountainhead. The sustaining, eternal truth at the heart of God is a boundless joy, a ceaseless rejoicing into which we are called. This never-ending joy is ours to dwell within, here and now, as we live in connection to its creator. “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” Psalm 34:8 . “He who heeds the word wisely will find good, and whoever trusts in the LORD, happy is he.” Proverbs 16:20
Happiness? Sometimes, ephemeral and passing, but welcome. Suffering? Assuredly, but not without promise. Joy, experienced here and now, moment by moment as a light dawning from the horizon of God’s promised fulfillment of new heavens and new earth, a new creation of which we are already and not yet a part.
Me (in words.)
Sometimes I like to write. Not well, mind you. But I do it just the same.