Happiness is roughly synonymous with the biblical idea of “blessedness.” In classical and medieval Christian ethics happiness referred to a state of human flourishing or well-being that aligned the life of a person with the truest good. Actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions had to be ordered in light of the proper end of mankind for a person to be truly happy. Happiness was thus an ethical, not a psychological project. To pursue happiness was to pursue the whole reason for one’s being, but that meant recognizing that one’s desires and actions were in need of correction. It meant accounting for the fact that human beings did not instinctively pursue the truest good, that some very attractive pleasures were not truly in keeping with the most essential contours of our nature. In Christian terms, the pursuit of happiness meant recognizing that God had created us to flourish in the context of obedience to Him so that our image-bearing nature might display His glory. Since our sin and consequent waywardness alienated us from our deepest, truest identity, the pursuit of happiness was only possible by grace, since we cannot by our own strength resist the disordering effects of sin in our lives.Therein lies the problem. The happiness we seek and the happiness we claim as our right today is not a contentment flowing from our sense of purpose and identity as one who was created for and lives within the boundaries of place within the Divine Order. The sad truth is that as a culture we don't care what God intended or what He created or what He desired or still desires. God is absent from our discussion of life and gender and happiness and desire -- except, of course, when we can use Him to justify and authenticate our misappropriation of that once more noble term. We believe that this self-absorbed and self-defined happiness is the sole purpose and reason for our existence and anything and everything which infringes upon this happiness is our enemy. So morality that in any way encumbers our free choice is deemed obtrusive and domineering just as those who would have the nerve to tell us we cannot or should not do this or that.
Good is only as deep and wide as the individual who seeks it and defines it. The individualism that has come to characterize everything from culture to politics to religion to truth is the ultimate flourishing of the more modern definition of happiness. So nations struggle because one of the primary threads in our fabric of identity and unity is the fact that we have a shared value system. Yet it is only one value that we share -- the value of me. Ultimate good is a foreign and alien concept to our culture today. So we live in a culture of death where people have value and their lives are held sacred only if they do not inconvenience me or infringe upon my freedom to pursue my own happiness. In the same way, if I determine that my life has become a burden to me, I demand the freedom to end my life, painlessly, of course, when I choose to (or so say those who believe assisted suicide is the most humane choice of all -- the choice not to live).
I will have to admit that when the Jerusalem Bible began to translate "Blesseds" of the Beatitudes with the word "Happy" I belittled the choice of words as a cop out. Like Gene Veith, I see now that this was not as foolish a choice as I had thought but surely one that is even more misunderstood than the familiar word "Blessed."
Happiness will be our undoing. We discard spouses and children and jobs as well as things when they no longer make us happy. But in doing so we are not happier at all. We live in a nation of people who try retail therapy, video game diversions, opioid pain relief, recreational marijuana, prozac and its kin, and everything else we can do to satisfy the itch within and yet we are among the most unhappy people in history. Our children suffer the burdens of this angst too early in their childhood years and as adults we seem never to find the Nirvana we are searching for. It seems we are not only unhappy, we are not blessed.