Yesterday, the 20th of March, was the International Day of Happiness, proclaimed in July 2012 by the United Nations General Assembly, "recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in people's lives and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives."
Being happy is in fact what everybody wants, but people hugely differ in their definition of happiness and views of how to achieve it.
Contrary to public perceptions due to prejudices and intentional distortions, Catholicism also wants people to be happy. A person couldn't be declared saint, for instance, if he hadn't been happy in his life.
Professor of philosophy Christopher Kaczor, in the book The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction about Catholicism (Amazon USA) (Amazon UK) , writes:
[E]very saint experiences and exhibits joy - no saint is canonized without it.The Catholic idea of and route to happiness are surprisingly similar to what current scientific psychology thinks, on the basis of empirical studies.
Here are some results of psychological research.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is the author of the book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Amazon USA) (Amazon UK) , in which she examines hundreds of empirical studies and concludes that about 50% of individual differences in happiness are caused by genes, 10% by life circumstances and 40% by our intentional choices of goals and activities.
That 40% is in our hands, and is going to have an important effect on our happiness.
Drawing on the work of psychologists and philosophers, the book Healing the Culture (Amazon USA) (Amazon UK) by Robert J Spitzer distinguishes four kinds of intentional goals and activities corresponding to four different levels of happiness. Here they are:
- Physical, bodily pleasure through food, drink, drugs, sex and so on.
- Attainment of money, power, success, popularity, fame and other material goods.
- Loving and serving other people, and therefore avoiding hurting others.
- Loving and serving God.
This is what the Catholic Church says. And this is also what evidence-based psychological research says.
This subject requires more than an article, but let's make some reflections.
The paradox of hedonism
The first level is the easiest and the quickest to attain, but it's also the quickest to end. Not only it's short-lived, it's also short term. Only an addict or someone with serious problems would base his life on the search for this kind of pleasure, often followed by much greater pain (physical and psychological), ill health and other serious consequences.
There is nothing wrong with bodily pleasure, but in moderation and not as final goal. Catholicism says the same.
The first level is related to what is called the "paradox of hedonism", something already known to ancient Greek philosophers. It's very simple: you don't find happiness by directly pursuing it. Happiness is only the indirect consequence of something else, the result perhaps of something we produced or created and we are satisfied with. We find happiness when we aim at something else.
We all have experienced this type of failure. If you desperately try to have fun at a party, you're more likely to end up with the opposite effect. A deliberate effort to enjoy oneself, to find happiness or pleasure with alcohol or drugs can be one extreme case of this paradox. Another extreme case, at the other end of the scale, can be psychotherapy: continuously looking for possible internal obstacles to one's happiness.
Happiness and money: dispelling a myth
At the second level we find the goals that probably most people, in today's materialistic society, associate with happiness, so it needs more analysis.
It may seem obvious, and yet not many people take notice of this thing, that philosophers have always said, from Epicurus onwards: finding happiness in wealth is an illusion.
American affluence research shows that. In the early '80s, Americans had 5 times as many air-conditioners per head, 4 times as many clothes dryers and 7 times as many dishwashers as in 1958; 93% of American homes owned colour TVs, as opposed to 1% in 1960. Yet, despite this dramatic increase, people didn't feel happier. The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found that the proportion of Americans describing themselves as "very happy" had remained the same (one third).
For most people, once they've satisfied their basic needs, the pursuit of material wealth does not achieve happiness. That explains why the huge gulf in affluence between, say, the Germans and the Indians, or the Japanese and the Kenyans doesn't translate into a different degree of how happy the people of these countries judge themselves.
R. A. Easterlin, of the University of Pennsylvania, has performed a comparative international survey of the link between affluence and happiness. His conclusion is that there is little relation between the two: "Economic growth does not rise a society to some ultimate state of plenty. Rather, the growth process itself engenders ever-growing wants that lead it ever onward".
Lottery winners and paraplegics
Suppose you win the National Lottery. Now suppose you have been paralysed in a major car crash. You probably think that, if the first were true, six months after the event you'd be much happier than if the second were true.
Well, empirical evidence shows that it is not so. Studies of the way people react to major happenings show that big money lottery winners, statistically, are no happier than those paralysed in a car accident, six months after each event.
Six months is the keyword, here. There is an element of habituation, a mechanism by which our minds get used to almost anything.
Basically, the maintenance of an emotional state (whether good or bad doesn't matter) and the repetition of a stimulus result in a neutral state, in which the stimulus has no more or little effect.
Here is the abstract of "Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?", a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
Adaptation level theory suggests that both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning. Study 1 compared a sample of 22 major lottery winners with 22 controls and also with a group of 29 paralyzed accident victims who had been interviewed previously. As predicted, lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events. Study 2 indicated that these effects were not due to preexisting differences between people who buy or do not buy lottery tickets or between interviews that made or did not make the lottery salient. Paraplegics also demonstrated a contrast effect, not by enhancing minor pleasures but by idealizing their past, which did not help their present happiness. [Emphasis added]Happiness is relative, and depends just on the contrast with a previous state. A way in which this habituation occurs is through a series of rationalizations, a sort of "lying" to ourselves which is not necessarily lying, but giving a different interpretation to things.
Maybe, we can think, lottery winners are not so happy because they didn't earn that money and therefore they didn't appreciate it. Maybe they felt guilty about it.
Well, wrong again. Studies of Fortune 500 executives found they had only average levels of happiness, and 37% of these ultra-wealthy business leaders are less happy than the average person.
Christopher Kaczor says in an interview:
As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out more than seven centuries ago, we want many things that no amount of money can buy. We cannot find true happiness in more fame, power or “winning” of any kind...Once you have enough money for food, clothing and shelter (what St. Thomas Aquinas called "natural wealth"), increases in money are unrelated to stable increases in happiness. In other words, once a person has the necessities, more money — money spent in shopping as well as money in the bank — does not lead to more happiness.
Scientists have studied this question extensively. It turns out that more money can make you much happier — if you live in abject poverty. If you do not have clothes to keep you warm, if you have no food for your children, and no roof over your head, money for these basic provisions greatly improves reported happiness.
Social psychologist David Myers, the author of The Pursuit of Happiness (Amazon USA) (Amazon UK) in which he reviews thousands of scientific studies, observes that the happiness attained by a purchase or achieving a particular level of wealth soon wears off and people adapt to whatever level of wealth they have achieved. Soon after having achieved a certain level of wealth or having purchased the desired product, the happiness recently enjoyed will fade and disappear.
This perhaps explains why, if you compare a person making $30,000 a year, another making $100,000 and a third making $500,000, there is very little difference in their self-reported happiness or levels of depression.
Not only that. However much money they make, they will all say that, if they had about 10% more, they would feel happier. When they do get that 10% more, however, which does happen over a few years of salary increases, they want another 10% and so on, ad infinitum.
Looking at other level-2 goals like power, success, popularity and fame, it's impossible not to notice how many so-called celebrities, people who have achieved all that - as well as money -, lead very miserable lives and often end up alcoholic, drug-addict, depraved, promiscuous, paedophile, HIV-positive and depressed even to the point of committing suicide.
Yet again, as in the case of physical pleasure, there is nothing wrong in any of those things per se: it's elevating them to supreme goals - or, as Catholicism puts it, loving them more than other people and than God - that turns a positive into a negative.
Think of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.
They all correspond to some lack of self-discipline, by which we give more importance to something else than to others and God. If we had faith and followed His commendments, we wouldn't need any self-help book.
It turns out that psychologists, even those who don't believe in God, recognise - simply on the basis of empirical evidence - that the people who are happiest, mentally healthiest and most fullfilled are those who attain both the third and the fourth levels: serving and loving other people and God.
Robin Skynner, just as an example, in the book he co-wrote with John Cleese, Life And How To Survive It (Amazon USA) (Amazon UK) , says, like so many other psychologists, that the healthiest individuals are those who manage to feel part of something greater and higher than themselves. And, considering the secular nature of this book, he gives a surprising emphasis to Jesus' words.
It's because God and the Church want us to be happy that they guide us towards certain goals and behaviours.