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The secret of true happiness

Fr Christopher Jamison OSB says it is better to plan a happy death rather than trying to feel good all the time

By on Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A man dives into the Irish Sea: ‘A common assumption about happiness is that it’s the same as pleasure... feel-good chemicals must be kept pumping through the body’

A man dives into the Irish Sea: ‘A common assumption about happiness is that it’s the same as pleasure... feel-good chemicals must be kept pumping through the body’

Fr Michael died well. As a Benedictine monk, he’d led a life of great dedication to the people he served, combined with a traditional piety that gave him a firm foundation. He died surrounded by his brethren and fortified by the rites of the Church. His was a happy death.

Yet the phrase “a happy death” is for most people today a contradiction in terms. For the Church, it is the most desirable conclusion to a good life. The Catholic tradition has for centuries encouraged us to pray for that grace and the Roman Missal has a set of prayers “for the grace of a happy death”. What we are praying for is that at the hour of our death we may be reconciled with God and at peace with our neighbour, strengthened by the sacraments of the Church to pass into everlasting life. In addition to that, each of us will have a particular desire for the time of our death: that an estranged relative might be reconciled or that our country might have made peace with its enemies. Taking all of these together is the happy death for which we pray.

We know that in general we must pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on us. A happy death, however, seems an exception to this because we cannot control our death. People can, however, take steps to make death happy by means of what project managers call “back-planning”. Starting at the end point (the ideal state at the time of death) people need to ask: in order to be in that state, what needs to be done the day before, the week before, the month before and so on, right up until the present moment. Then people can discover what they need to do today in order to prepare for a happy death.

This vision is at odds with many contemporary understandings of happiness. The most common assumption about happiness is that it is the same as pleasure; so being happy means feeling good. This is an exhausting approach to happiness because, in order to be this kind of happy person, feel-good chemicals must be kept pumping through the body morning, noon and night either by natural means, like exercise, or by unnatural means, like narcotics.

On this definition, since not feeling great means you’re unhappy, most people are unhappy every time they wake up in the morning. That is clearly not the case, and we can conclude that not feeling great is not the same as being unhappy. So if feeling good is not the answer to the question “What is happiness?” then where can we find the answer?

The ancient Greeks certainly had a better answer than the contemporary assumption that it’s all about feeling good. And they expressed it much more clearly too. Plato concluded that the contemplation of truth, goodness and beauty was the height of happiness and there are plenty of signs that people today secretly agree with him even if they don’t come out with it so clearly. For example, art exhibitions and concerts, where people flock to appreciate beauty, have never been so popular.

People’s admiration for the generosity of those serving the sick and homeless shows that our appreciation of goodness is as high as ever. The telling of the truth has emerged as a key feature in reconciling warring communities in once-divided countries like South Africa. Plato’s view of happiness is alive and well, even though people don’t always recognise it.

Plato’s greatest pupil was Aristotle and he took his master’s ideas a step further. He said that happiness consists not simply in contemplating the good but in doing good. He saw the importance of teaching people to be virtuous. Like many modern thinkers, he saw the child as having a tendency to behave selfishly unless taught to behave well. He wanted people to be taught to act virtuously because virtuous living made both individuals and societies happy.

Today, people express their outrage at the vices of our leaders in politics and in business; the lack of virtue makes people very unhappy. They know instinctively that virtue makes us all happy, even if they don’t express it that way. Aristotle, too, is alive and well in contemporary society.

This approach to happiness is not dependent on religious faith yet all the major faith communities support it. Christian faith absorbed this view as it spread through the world and the grace of Christ offered a way of restoring hope to those who had fallen from this ideal. The Christian community is a community that offers practical steps to live out this view of happiness. The Church’s contemplative tradition shows us how to pray so that we can contemplate the truth, the goodness and the beauty of the Blessed Trinity. The Catholic moral tradition teaches us how to live virtuously and how to find forgiveness when we fail. The Church is a school of living happily, not a school of feeling good.

So is the Church against feeling good? Of course not. The monastic tradition to which I belong is particularly appreciative of feeling good: after all, it was Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk, who invented champagne. But monks know that feeling good is a bonus, like champagne. It is not the purpose of life. The banking crisis showed how life goes wrong when the bonus becomes the purpose: greed takes over.

People should enjoy feeling good as a bonus that can accompany contemplation and good living; but sometimes persevering in prayer and doing the right thing will be painful. In those times of suffering, we can hang on to deep happiness rather than thinking: “I must give up because I’m not feeling good.”

Once, after I had explained this in a talk, a recently widowed middle-aged woman came to me in tears; she thanked me for explaining what she had felt since her husband died. Her pain at the loss seemed overwhelming but through prayer and loving interaction with so many concerned people she had experienced deep consolation too. In the midst of pain, she could still contemplate the good and do good. She had never understood before how she could be experiencing both such grief and such consolation. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Back-planning from our death bed will include making sure we give time every day to what matters: the classic virtues of justice and courage, prudence and temperance; the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; daily prayer and regular participation in the sacraments. This is the happiness that we are celebrating in this year’s Day for Life. It is a happiness that all can find in riches and in poverty, in sickness and in health, in death and in life. To adapt the words of Our Lord: happiness I give you, my happiness I give you, not as the world gives it. On the Day for Life the Church reminds each person that this gift is theirs to receive.

Fr Christopher Jamison OSB is director of the National Office for Vocation of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and author of Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). This year’s Day for Life is on July 31

  • Jim

    The distinction between the emotion of happiness and the sensation of pleasure is an important one. Thank you for offering such a beautiful essay on applying that distinction to our life and death!

  • Jim

    The distinction between the emotion of happiness and the sensation of pleasure is an important one. Thank you for offering such a beautiful essay on applying that distinction to our life and death!

  • Mike CZ|

    I think we confuse happiness with contentment.