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The problem with the notion that one should do good because doing good leads to happiness is that, well, what if it doesn’t?

Throughout human history, the greatest thinkers and theologians have each proposed a state of being which in their view was the highest state of personal fulfillment one could achieve. For Plato, the master goal—the end-goal to which all other proximate goals should lead—is “the good.” For Aristotle, it was “eudaemonia,” a term which has no precise translation and which is somewhat analogous to the modern term “happiness” but connotes something more all-embracing, such as “human flourishing,” or “the good life.” For Moses Maimonides, it was “sh’leimut” (lit., “wholeness”), a state of cognitive fulfillment made possible by the freedom to philosophize—a state which individuals can only attain when living in free societies, for only in polities which vigilantly safeguard liberty does one have the untrammeled freedom to philosophize. For Baruch Spinoza, the highest personal achievement one can attain is “blessedness,” a state of holistic fulfillment also only attainable in free societies. For Moses Mendelssohn, “felicity”—roughly analogous to Spinoza’s “blessedness”—was the central aim of life. For Kant, the summum bonum is a life of unimpeded fidelity to the moral law. But what about happiness?, we Americans, for whom the pursuit of happiness is enshrined as a quasi-constitutional right and is fundamental to our country’s ethos, might ask. The paradox of happiness is that it’s the thing in life that we most want but it’s also the hardest thing to get; according to recent polls, individuals in almost every country say that happiness is “what they want most in life,” but only thirty-one percent of Americans rate themselves as being “very happy.” In a culture in which happiness is regarded as life’s central pursuit and the highest state of personal achievement, it would seem to be important—at least for religionists—to know what today’s theologians have to say about the subject, and to know whether religion can help individuals achieve this often elusive goal. John J. Fitzgerald, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University, in his new book The Seductiveness of Virtue: Abraham Joshua Heschel and John Paul II on Morality and Personal Fulfillment, does just that, taking us on a grand tour of the place of happiness in the thought of two of the most consequential theologians of the twentieth century.

Religion, or at least some of the most important teachings of religion, has an integral role to play in the cultivation of happiness, according to Dr. Fitzgerald; both Pope St. John Paul II and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that doing good—that is, living ethically, pursuing the kinds of virtuous moral activities advocated by Christianity and Judaism, and following religious law—leads to increases in happiness, meaning, freedom, and personal fulfillment. They don’t share the same exact view on happiness, which slightly complicates things—but only slightly. Heschel understands happiness as “the certainty of being needed,” while John Paul II interprets it as the ultimate good: God Himself. Furthermore, John Paul II stresses the connection between behaving ethically and achieving eternal life, while Heschel is more willing to countenance the possibility that living a religious life may also involve a measure of unhappiness and anxiety. Ultimately, though, both maintain that living an ethical life is vital to achieving happiness.

Before arriving at John Paul II’s and Heschel’s views of happiness, Dr. Fitzgerald walks us through what classical and medieval thinkers such as Aristotle and Aquinas had to say about happiness—or about comparable terms and concepts, as “happiness” in its modern conception is most likely not a concept that either would recognize. If Aquinas and Aristotle recognized a good called “happiness,” it was a much more objective notion for them than it is for us today: “it is much more common for people [today] to conceive of happiness in the subjective sense.”

Dr. Fitzgerald, in a helpful interdisciplinary move, also compares and contrasts Heschel’s and John Paul II’s views on happiness with those of other key modern thinkers on ethics—the Dalai Lama, Peter Singer, and the school of positive psychology—and finds their opinions to be strikingly similar. Positive psychologists (psychologists who study human happiness) point to “kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, savoring pleasures,” and “exercising” as practices to engage in if one desires happiness. Singer cites studies that suggest that ethical behavior leads to happiness: giving to charity increases the likelihood of being “very happy” by forty-three percent, and decreases the likelihood of feeling “hopeless” by sixty-eight percent.” And the Dalai Lama maintains that living morally fosters “genuine happiness and joy” and creates a “sense of purpose in life.” He also writes (in Ethics for the New Millennium) that religion “is an extremely effective instrument for establishing human happiness.”

Returning to “the rabbi and the pope,” Heschel and John Paul II distinguish themselves from the aforementioned figures and movements in specifying that the path toward happiness and fulfillment lies not only in living ethically but in following God’s commandments. A godly life is conducive to happiness because it takes the focus off of the “pure consumerism” of secular society, an ethos which can only lead to “radical dissatisfaction” (in John Paul II’s words) because of the self-centered attitude it engenders, and places our focus on something Other-centered, something transcendent—the locus of “real meaning” in life.

What else increases happiness? We know that money (beyond the amount necessary to meet one’s basic needs) does not: “even people who win the lottery,” writes Dr. Fitzgerald, based on Singer’s findings, “quickly adapt to their new circumstances and revert to their original level of happiness.” Neither does politics: a 2014 University of Chicago study revealed that being “very interested in politics” increases the probability of being “not too happy” by approximately eight percent. But sex does: a 2004 Scandinavian Journal of Economics study found that “increasing the frequency of intercourse from once a month to once a week generates the same amount of happiness as an additional $50,000 a year in income.” (Does this mean that Orthodox Jewish couples who refrain from sex during the wife’s niddah [menstrual] week are the equivalent of $2.6 million per year “poorer in happiness” than couples who do not?) And so too does religion:

Research shows that there is a correlation between religious commitment and happiness, particularly if that commitment goes beyond mere belief. For instance, [positive psychologist Sonja] Lyubomirsky explains, “47 percent of people who report attending religious services several times a week describe themselves as ‘very happy,’ versus 28 percent of those who attend less than once a month.” Moreover, those who are religious tend to be healthier and cope better with adversity than those who are not.

Moreover, Martin Seligman, the founder of the school of positive psychology, observed that “’the more fundamentalist the religion, the more optimistic are its adherents’; Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians are much more optimistic and less ‘depressive’ than Reform Jews and Unitarians.” (Orthodox Jewish couples, then, are apparently able to make up their “sex happiness” deficit through their “religious happiness” surplus.) Moses Mendelssohn believed that belief in God and belief in the immortality of the soul were beneficial in promoting human flourishing, but psychologists have identified living religiously (adhering to religion’s commandments and restrictions, and being part of religious communities)—as a more important factor in promoting happiness than merely believing religiously. This is so, believes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, because “social constraints, bonds, and obligations”—characteristics of religious communities and religious lifestyles—lead to more meaning and fulfillment in life, whereas “an ideology of extreme personal freedom”—the spirit of secular society—“can be dangerous because it encourages people to leave homes, jobs, cities, and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment.”

The problem with the notion that one should do good because doing good leads to happiness is that, well, what if it doesn’t? Living according to ethical guidelines and doing good is a wonderful thing, but doing good alone doesn’t lead to happiness. Happiness is by nature subjective, and it is a rare, often elusive goal, because achieving it is contingent upon a multiplicity of factors: physical health, financial health, professional satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, one’s relationships with one’s parents, the well-being of one’s children, having true friends (and enjoying the company of one’s friends on a regular basis), and even something as simple as getting enough sleep—how many of us are grumpy on a particular day following a poor night of sleep and happier the following day after having gotten the proper amount of rest? If only one of these criteria is unmet, our entire equilibrium can be thrown off and happiness will slip through our hands. Doing good—as important as it is—is only one of the ingredients that lead to happiness. Making happiness entirely contingent upon doing good, then, is a dangerous thing, because when we do good and still aren’t happy after having expected that doing good is supposed to make us happy, we may be tempted to drop the entire virtuous business of doing good altogether and focus on more selfish goals. Better to do good without expecting that it should lead to happiness, because giving charity or volunteering in a soup kitchen may not make us happy if we are trapped in a job we dislike or stuck in a quarrelsome marriage. Linking ethics to happiness certainly makes virtue more seductive, but it could be a highly problematic linkage whose benefits are outweighed by its losses.

The other question that must be considered is whether happiness should indeed be the ultimate goal of life in the first place. Many—including Dr. Fitzgerald and the Declaration of Independence of the United States—take it for granted that the pursuit of happiness is, and should be, the objective of life. But this is an assumption that deserves to be questioned. Dr. Fitzgerald is correct when he writes that “the Hebrew Bible promises rewards for following the commandments,” but the reward it promises is that one’s crops will grow; it does not promise happiness. According to the Bible, doing good is the goal; happiness is an ancillary benefit that may or may not follow from doing good, but receiving a reward from doing good should not be the reason for acting virtuously. As the Talmudic sages say, “Be not like servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving a reward; rather, be like servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving a reward.” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:3) Maimonides was an ascetic (at least in comparison to today’s standards) and certainly did not consider happiness to be life’s ultimate goal; neither did Hermann Cohen, who held that the Prophets—the biblical figures after whom we should be modeling our lives—“do not fall short of stoicism.” (Religion of Reason, 134)

And from a (non-religious) philosophical perspective, Kant was no great proponent of eudaemonism, while Nietzsche famously remarked that if you want happiness, have faith; if you desire truth, then search. Not everyone believes that happiness must necessarily be the highest aim of life. But for those who do, Dr. Fitzgerald’s brief book is an excellent place to start if one is looking for substantive suggestions on how to not only pursue happiness but achieve it.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Great thought, I would carry it by one step further, holiness, instead of happiness through spirituality.

  2. This is a very thoughtful essay. It sure got me thinking about that word “happiness”, let alone think about the pursuit of it! I know that is what was written in the Declaration of Independence, but I have thought about the state of being happy more in the terms of joy, or being joyful. I really, at this moment am not sure why, because I do speak with the reference of someone being happy. So, I was curious about what God has to say about happiness.

    I looked at the concordance in one Bible, and the index in a student Bible that I have access to at this time and only found one reference to “happiness” in the entire Bible!! Not even the word happy. The Student Bible referred the reader to “joy”. Joy and joyful have many references.

    Isaiah 52:7 reads thus: How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of him who brings good news,
    of happiness,
    who publishes salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

    What I conclude from this, is that, happiness comes to me from the outside and not from my “pursuit” of something I don’t even know to look for. I do recognize that created human nature was given the condition of being happy, even joy that was not lost from Adams fall into sin. Happiness, to me, is an inward feeling, emotion, of complete calm, content in being completely loved and accepted, or being given a cherished gift. That, in turn, would be outwardly expressed in complete joy!!! I say this because when I recognize the need of my neighbor, and then fulfilling that need, my neighbor was not expecting this from me, nor did the neighbor ask for it. But, the need was recognized and the fulfillment sure brought happiness, and even more important, thankfulness.

    How could a simple word be so complex? Funny, isn’t it!

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