Would you say that you’re happy? Your answer will depend on whether you think about happiness as the pop singer Pharrell does or like the early church theologian Augustine.
“It is a certainty that all people want to be happy,” Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago in The City of God. It’s less certain, however, when “they ask who is happy or what makes them happy” (X.1). Men and women through the centuries have wrestled with understanding the essence of happiness. Is it pleasure, a positive state of being, wisdom, or even a goddess like the Roman deity Felicity? Or is happiness simply one of those things that you know when you see it—or when you feel it?
If You Feel Like a Room Without a Floor
If you assess your ultimate happiness Pharrell-style, you will be sorely disillusioned and let down. Maybe you sang and clapped along with it (or some other uplifting song) in the car this morning, but later on in the day you found yourself down about something once again (need not worry, someone thought ahead and made a 24-hour music video with the song on repeat to help you tune out any negativity). The truth is that viewing happiness as all about having high levels and unceasing positivity will lead to misery. Hard things in life will inevitably bring you down, and you’ll need more than carefree feelings and happy dance moves to carry you through those times.
Our happiness is as stable as the finite and fickle things that we devote our love and desires to. Augustine wrote, “Many people are miserable because they love what ought not to be loved, and are still more miserable when they enjoy it” (VIII.8). Augustine knew this reality intimately. “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in [God] but in myself and his other creatures,” he wrote in The Confessions, “and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (I.20). Maybe you’ve experienced this reality as well, as a job, relationship, or possession has failed to deliver the happiness you expected. Maybe your merry “room without a roof” was really a room without a floor to stand on.
'By Whose Indwelling Alone the Soul Is Made Happy'
Be relieved to know that you don’t have to feel pie-in-the-sky all the time to say that you’re a happy person. So how can we know if we’re happy? For Augustine, the happy person is one who knows and participates in God’s love, goodness, beauty, and grace. The following principles that Augustine developed in The City of God provide a framework for viewing happiness rightly.
Happiness is a gift. — When we understand that happiness is a gift from God, we will seek him for it. Augustine challenged the ancient Romans for turning God’s gift of happiness to mankind into a goddess to be worshiped. Seeking happiness while ignoring its source makes no sense. For no one “can escape unhappiness who worships happiness as a goddess and forsakes God, the giver of happiness, just as no one can escape hunger who licks at a picture of bread and does not ask for real bread from a person who has it” (IV.23). God depends on nothing other than himself for happiness because he is unchanging, eternal, and perfectly good, and he loves to share his happiness as a gift to mankind. He gives us life, creation, relationships, and so much more, but most importantly he gives us himself for our happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is tied to the pursuit of righteousness. — Like a fish on dry land, we will be miserable if we try to live in a way that we weren’t meant to live. Augustine believed, “No one is happy unless he is righteous” (XIV.25). We are most happy when we align our hearts and actions with the supreme good. When we desire the supreme good “not for the sake of anything else but for its own sake alone,” it will “leave us nothing further to seek for our happiness” (VIII.8). Since the supreme good is God himself, men and women will be most happy when they desire him supremely and delight in imitating his righteousness for its own sake. Unrighteousness and misery result from not loving God supremely and spending our desires on wrong things.
Happiness consists in love for God. — Our happiness is as strong and lasting as the things we love. If we look for it in “things that are material, temporal, mutable, and mortal,” then our happiness will be superficial, short-lived, and fickle (VII.19). But if we devote our “love to the one supreme good which is the immutable God,” then our happiness will be eternal (X.1). The love of God also frees us to find genuine happiness in things of this world—like relationships, food, music, recreation, work, learning, and so on—because they derive their goodness ultimately from him. The love of God also teaches us to have a right love for self, and it moves us to love our neighbors and promote their happiness.
The gift of happiness that comes from participating in God’s love and goodness looks different than Pharrell’s Happy song. It may inspire positivity and good feelings, but its main goal is to motivate you to love, gratitude, and grace. If you want to be happy, love God more.