Drugs and the Pursuit of Happiness

At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines the variety of human pursuits – for pleasure, honor, knowledge, etc. – and concludes that none of them are sought for their own sake. The only good sought for its own sake is happiness. It would be absurd to ask people why they are seeking happiness. Human beings are, as it were, “programmed” to seek happiness. Even the masochist or the suicide is seeking happiness, albeit in a distorted way.

Becoming more specific, Aristotle tries to define ideal happiness as living a long and virtuous life in good health, with sufficient material possessions, and exercising our endowment of rational powers, with a few good friends, and maybe good children also.

Obviously, this ideal requires a certain amount of luck, as well as some talents. But he admits that “great and continual misfortunes” can make the attainment of happiness difficult, even for the most virtuous person.

A more accessible version of happiness appears in a motto I used to see in the recreation center of my university – “aim for a natural high” – clearly meant to discourage the use of drugs and encouraging the use of tennis courts, swimming pool, weight-lifting apparatus, or (in my case) racquetball courts, to tone up body and mind.

The motto in the Rec Center contains a nugget of truth. Playing sports, helping others, being creative in arts and music and philosophy, can bring on a natural high. But if we pin our hopes on any such endeavor, we are still on the wrong track.

The problem is our oh-so-human tendency to look for almost infinite and unmitigated happiness. As St. Augustine put it in Confessions, “Our Hearts are Restless Until They Rest in [God].” No amount of wealth, pleasure, power, popularity, etc. can satisfy. Restlessness always ensues.

Fr. Robert Spitzer’s recent book, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, offers philosophical, psychological and scientific arguments for the widespread human aspiration for transcendence. Such tendencies can lead to serious searching – or be ignored. One who famously ignored such tendencies (and redefined transcendence as simply a relation to “otherness”) was the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who aspired to be one of the few great atheist philosophers, and in his 1964 book, The Words, mentions that he once had a concrete experience of the presence of God and resolutely rejected the experience. (Fr. Spitzer’s website is the Magis Center.)

In The Church – Paradox and Mystery, theologian Henri de Lubac writes:

Deep in human nature (and so in every man) the image of God is imprinted, that is, a quality that constitutes in it – and even without it – a kind of secret call to the object of the full and supernatural revelation brought by Christ.

The New Testament may be “responsible” for offering to everyone a glimpse of some infinite but attainable experience of transcendence. Jesus unmistakably “raises the bar” for our happiness-expectations when he says, “Give and gifts will be given to you: a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap” (Luke 6:38), and offers “founts of water springing up into life everlasting” (Jn. 4:14) as well as a “hundredfold” of happiness to those that follow Him (Mt. 19:29).

Saint Francis in Ecstasy by Caravaggio, c. 1595 [Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT]
Even Aristotle suggests in the Ethics that perhaps in everyone “there is some natural good stronger than themselves which aims at their proper good.”

In any case, many are clearly not satisfied with the “natural high” of the recreation center (or in friendship, creative activities, music, etc.), but are looking for something much more intense and satisfying.

Hospitals around the country are currently overwhelmed with cases of drug overdosing. In 2015, 52,000 Americans arrived too late and were not able to be resuscitated. Some such cases are the result of persons seeking an “instant high” (possibly transitioning from Marijuana or experimenting with opioids found on their grandmother’s medicine shelf, then looking for more and more intensive “highs” until they approach a fatal limit). Others unintentionally get hooked after legitimate prescriptions.

If one of the major causes for drug-related attempts at “instant happiness” is our “natural orientation to the supernatural” (as one theologian put it), perhaps supernatural help should be high on the list of remedies sought. Some evangelists have followed this route to countering drug addiction.

Indirectly, this “supernatural approach” helped give rise to the founding of the “Catholic Pentecostal” movement, at which I happened to be present. As a graduate student at Duquesne University in 1966, I was urged by a roommate to join in interactive relationships with a Protestant Pentecostal group reading and discussing pastor David Wilkerson’s book, The Cross and the Switchblade, which tells the story of the rescue of youth in New York from drugs and gang violence through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I agreed to read the book, which became a bestseller, but said I was too busy writing my dissertation to attend their meetings or go on the retreat. At that retreat, however, there were powerful manifestations of a Pentecostal nature, which no one could deny. Afterwards, my roommate and others urged me to attend some prayer meetings. I did, but never, to my knowledge, received the “baptism of the Spirit” or spoke in tongues like some of the others. I was perhaps too cerebral.

I have no reason to doubt that my friends at Duquesne had an experience similar to the Pentecostal experience narrated in Acts, and the outpourings of the Spirit in the epistles of the New Testament. But I believe they ended up living normal lives with “natural highs” and no intensive immersion in Pentecostalism.

We need to understand that “natural highs” just come unbidden, and should never be sought. Sound spiritual writers warn against seeking intense spiritual experiences. Most important, it is a serious, and potentially fatal, mistake to seek “instant happiness” in drugs. As Francis Seeburger advises in Addiction and Responsibility, drug addiction is a “perversely clever copy” of the “transcendent peace of God,” which is completely outside the false paradise of drugs.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.