I wish you a happy New Year. Or, as we might soon be saying, I wish you a high rating in your felicific calculus. For our level of happiness is, according to the government, something which the Office for National Statistics is soon to measure in its survey of households. Strictly speaking, it is supposed to be a measure of ‘well-being’, which in itself poses the question as to whether happiness and well-being are necessarily the same thing.
At the foundation of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 is the phrase ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Thomas Jefferson, its author, originally left out any reference to happiness in the first draft (which talked about the right to land). But even in setting out what he regarded as man’s inalienable right to pursue happiness, he was wise enough to recognise there is no guarantee he will achieve it (As a later cultural icon, Mick Jagger, noted nearly two hundred years later, “I can’t get no satisfaction”).
Happiness is elusive. We are well used to being sold dreams of happiness by advertising and lifestyle gurus. In the run-up to Christmas one consumerist myth read ‘Give happiness. Give them everything they want’. Happiness, it turned out, was a laptop. And happiness might be thought to be highly subjective: what engenders a sense of contentment in one person may do nothing for another, while some people find contentment in ways others can only find baffling. The poet Philip Larkin wrote: “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” We don’t all find our joy and delight in the same ways.
We know that money alone is not the key to happiness. Many years before the birth of Christ, Aristotle told us that “wealth is merely useful and for the sake of something else”. It’s not enough, in other words, to want to accumulate more and more of everything – money, material goods, food, drink – if you want to be happy. Simply consuming things – or desiring to – doesn’t stop you feeling sad or angry.
The Benedictine monk Christopher Jamison has argued that monks are not unhappy because they do not experience life as gloomy, forlorn and miserable. That is a good starting point. The spiritual resources of the Christian tradition can help us to face up to and handle what it is that makes us unhappy, and at the same time will begin to point us to an understanding of what happiness is that will take us away from many of our common understandings of happiness.
St Benedict, who laid the foundations for much Western monasticism, described a monk as somebody who “delights in virtue”. In this he was following Aristotle, who held that happiness was about living virtuously: “the activity of the soul expressing virtue” was the way he put it. In other words, forget our modern association of happiness with feelings and emotions: happiness is about living in harmony with our own purposes and ends. It is a form of rational behaviour, which can be learned until it becomes a habit. We learn as children what is fair and just: we can grow up to be adults who act fairly and justly, and that brings happiness both to ourselves and to others.
So if we want to be happy we have to first know what is good – in the sense of understanding what is right behaviour and what are the principles of a good life – and then we have to do good – in the sense of living out a virtuous life. None of that is easy. There are plenty of siren voices tempting us down other paths towards happiness. There are plenty of obstacles in the way of knowing and doing what is good. But this is the road the Christian tradition takes us down if we want to know true happiness, contentment and well-being.
Instead of drawing up a list of New Year’s resolutions, why not ponder this question: in 2011, what makes you happy?