Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Makes Us Happy?: Balancing Success and Salvation

Published in the January 2011 issue of Liguorian magazine.

The financial crisis that began in the United States in 2008 reveals, above all, the deception experienced by men and women today when it comes to their sense of happiness. Happiness, they think, is defined by worldly success. Beyond its leading to the collapse of business and finance, this deception brings to light the collapse of moral values relating to happiness and worldly success.

For decades we experienced great and rapid growth in the economy, in science, and in technology, but this success came without concern for human beings and their communities. While we have made great strides in technology and science, we have not grown morally or spiritually. We built what seemed a more successful society, but we did so without regard to making both society and ourselves truly better. And when what we built led to financial disaster, it highlighted the underlying human disaster in seeking success instead of true happiness.

Society in transition

In 2011, we find our society in transition. We are moving from the modern age, which was inspired by the ideal of unlimited progress, to the postmodern age as we recognize the failure of progress to deliver what it promised. For centuries, successful societies grew, spurred on by the earthly hope that they could end human suffering and create a perfectly just world. But as we’ve discovered, this ideal of progress was unable to remedy the great evils of humanity such as hunger, inequity, and injustice. Instead, it generated new evils such as war, the arms race, and dire poverty.

Seeing this failure, something changed in the human spirit. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a vision of the world as a cemetery of the earlier hopes of progress was born. If there is no future for people of our times, it has been said, then there is little point in working for progress—particularly for progress that has only ever failed. And this is where we find ourselves today. Contemporary thinking proposes replacing the older quest for worldly progress with the search for worldly success—and all but disregards the quest for true happiness.

Misconceptions of today’s world

Some say the only thing that counts as success or happiness is pleasure gained from whatever is quick and easy and appeals to our senses. Among other tendencies of our time, this leads us to a vision of happiness in which there is no place for anything other than pleasure. Pain, suffering, old age, and loneliness—human experiences that can lead to growth—as well as the difficult yet joyful experiences of solidarity, commitment, and serving others have no place in today’s world. In our search for happiness, we have failed to integrate the very human experience of suffering and hardship into our understanding of daily life. The experience of anything difficult or unpleasant has been set against the view of success and happiness as originating from pleasure. To achieve immediate pleasure—which is understood as happiness—any measure is valid.

A denial of that less enjoyable yet meaningful side of life leaves us depressed and anxious when we face hardship. In the midst of so many ways of life from which to choose, we have no sense of direction and no way of understanding how we could be happy even in the midst of suffering.

So in recent times we have been concerned ultimately with success that we believe will make us happy. We have occupied ourselves with building all that is powerful and globalized and with accumulating material goods for our pleasure, but we have forgotten about human beings in the process.

This is reflected in today’s disparate ideas of success. For a minority of privileged persons in the world, success means greater comfort, luxury, and extravagance. For millions of the poor, success means having only the most elementary conditions for subsistence: water, food, shelter, and clothing. This is our failure. And as we have failed to resolve the great problems of humanity, we have also failed to fill people’s emptiness and their longing for meaning and purpose amidst the struggle to succeed. We have failed to build a more just world, and we have failed to develop people who are truly and profoundly human, who live with a sense of community, and who seek true happiness.

Even the media remind us daily that success is not necessarily synonymous with happiness. Achievements do not always coincide with happiness, and those who are quite wealthy and successful by social standards often wind up being the least satisfied with life. In our world we find successful people who are quite unhappy; we also find many who are unsuccessful but very happy.

So what is true success? How are we to judge if we are really happy?

Christian view of happiness

Human beings have been defined by people of philosophy and people of faith as seekers of happiness. Our search for happiness is an unending task that often causes constant dissatisfaction. We long for happiness and are not satisfied until we find it. Saint Augustine taught that the desire for happiness in the human heart is really a desire for God. As Christians, we can trust that our longing for happiness will be satisfied by the saving person of Christ and by the saving gospel he proclaims.

We confess Jesus of Nazareth as our savior. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Light of the world. These are more than just statements of belief; for us, his disciples, they should reveal the happiness for which we long. Jesus is our true source of happiness, and our success in this life is measured only by our life in him.

Jesus’ proposal for our lives consists of recognizing God as our compassionate and merciful Creator and Father. In living as God’s children—and in doing the Father’s will—we are to love one another as brothers and sisters and build God’s kingdom in the world. As Christians, we are to prove daily, in each of our lives, that this life of Christ in us calls us to build a new and better world. We are called to reveal to others that the life of a child of God—filled with humble obedience, hope, and joyful confidence in the goodness of our Father in heaven—brings us happiness. We are called to demonstrate that a life of love, of service, of forgiveness, and of solidarity with our neighbors saves us and makes us happy. We are called to live each day with life in Christ as the true measure of our earthly success and of our eternal happiness.

It is not always easy to follow this call, not always easy to see our true source of happiness in Christ. As people living in the world, we still see a distinction between the happiness that comes from salvation and the happiness the world offers. We see that all people desire happiness, long for true happiness in Christ, but do not know how to obtain it. Christians, too, often see our quest for the happiness of salvation as separate from our quest for earthly success and happiness. This indicates that the Church, in its work of evangelism, has not yet fully revealed the union between the happiness every human desires and the happiness that comes from the salvation offered to all in Christ.

Life in Christ

It is the responsibility of the Church and of each Christian disciple to demonstrate—through what we believe and through what we practice—that Christ saves us. Or to say it in another way, Christ makes us happy, he gives us abundant life, new life, full life, eternal life, for which we long. Christ leads us to measure our success as persons only against the true happiness we have obtained through faith in him.

If the way in which we live our daily lives does not make this message clear, then the Church’s proclamation of salvation becomes one that no one understands or finds convincing. Moreover, if such a proclamation is clothed in the customs and language of past ages, the message of true happiness becomes one that is easily ignored. We must vigorously proclaim this “good news” in each and every place we live and work.

As Christians, we believe that Christ saves us, he makes us happy. We believe that the question of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he should do to obtain eternal life (happiness) is our eternal question as well. We also believe that Jesus’ answer to the rich young man responds to our human questions today. To find happiness, we must love and serve others, especially the most needy. (See Mt 19:16–21.)

Therefore life in Christ—as God’s children and as brothers and sisters—is necessary for every person who seeks happiness. In the resurrection of Christ we confess the triumph of good, of justice, of mercy, and of life beyond death. Through Christ, we know that God wants us to have life—and not just any kind of life, but life that is abundantly happy and truly successful, life that springs from the new commandment of love and calls us to serve one another just as God himself has loved and served us. (See Jn 10:10; 13:34.)

All are called

The time has come to find the pathway that was lost on our search for happiness. The time has come to find ourselves again, to rediscover our true purpose in bringing to life the best of human and community values. Those of us who follow the Judeo-Christian tradition can return to the Word of God, which reveals to us God’s criteria of success—criteria that do not always coincide with our own. This same Word reminds us that happy are those who place their confidence in God and who administer everything they have to help the weakest and most needy.

Finally, whether one is a believer or not, all of us have in our nature, in our creaturely being, profoundly human tendencies—which are also profoundly divine—that lead us to desire friendship with all of humanity. All experience the call to more noble, more excellent, more sublime human values that bring happiness to our daily lives and help build a better world in which true success and authentic happiness are available and accessible to all.

Mario Paredes is presidential liaison for Catholic ministry at American Bible Society. As founder and director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center, he published the Lectionary for Spanish speakers in the United States.

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