At the top of a very large pile of books on my nightstand are two titles I’m reading: Happiness in This Life by Pope Francis and Dr. Burns’ Prescription for Happiness by the late comedian George Burns, who lived to 100 so he must have known something about what makes us happy.
George Burns’ formula for happiness is a tempting, worldly one for many people. Happiness, he suggests, can be found in young women in skimpy bikinis, long vacations in the Caribbean and winning streaks at Las Vegas casinos.
However, once I got past the punch lines, I found this gem: “If you were to go around asking people what would make them happier, you’d get answers like a new car, a bigger house, a raise in pay, winning a lottery, a facelift, more kids, less kids but probably not one in 100 would say a chance to help people. And yet that may bring the most happiness of all.”
Pope Francis had the same idea: “Happiness can’t be bought, and whenever you try to buy happiness, you soon realize that it has vanished. The happiness you can buy does not last. Only the happiness of love lasts. The path of love is simple: Love God and love your neighbor, love your brother or sister, love whoever is near you and whoever needs love or needs anything else.”
In America, we’re obsessed with the pursuit of happiness because we’re taught from a young age that it’s an inalienable right endowed by our Creator, to quote Thomas Jefferson. It may have been endowed by our Creator, but in the pursuit of happiness, we typically forget our Creator.
About 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Ever since then, we’ve been trying to find happiness without much success.
The Greeks believed happiness was the byproduct of a virtuous life. I’d argue that it’s a byproduct of a life spent trying to do God’s will, or, as they say in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, “[We] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” That’s a simple formula for happiness, and you don’t need a degree from an Ivy League college to figure it out.
A recent story in the New York Times had the headline, “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness.” It said a record number of 1,200 students enrolled in a course called, “Psychology and the Good Life” that would “teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life.” A few years ago, Harvard offered a similar course that was enormously popular. An Ivy League degree may ensure prestige and a well-paying job, but not necessarily happiness.
Over the past 25 years, pop psychologists have turned the pursuit of happiness into a pseudo-science. What have they discovered? The married man is happier than the single man. The middle-aged woman isn’t as happy as the middle-aged man. Republicans are happier than Democrats or maybe it’s the other way around.
One study concluded that fame, good looks and wealth may actually be sources of anxiety and unhappiness, and that personal growth and meaningful relationships offer us a greater sense of fulfillment and contentment.
Everyone has a personal formula that usually includes good health, a hefty bank account, a loving spouse, respectful kids and a high-paying job with a corner office. There are countless books and articles about how to be happy, and yet we’re surrounded by unhappiness, largely because our relentless search overlooks God, who should be our primary focus.
Pope Benedict XVI had this to say, “To what extent does a life that is totally spent in achieving success, longing for prestige, and seeking commodities to the point of excluding God from one’s horizon truly lead to happiness? Can true happiness exist when God is left out of consideration? Experience shows that we are not happy just because our material expectations and needs are satisfied.”
Without God there is no lasting happiness, regardless of what professors at Yale and Harvard say. And George Burns knew that. After all, he played God in three movies, and his beloved wife Gracie Allen was a devout Catholic who went to Mass regularly and said a prayer before they went on stage.
Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.