The False ‘Science’ of Happiness

The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week with the headline, “They’re the Happiest People in America.  We Called to Ask Them Why.”   If you, as a Catholic, clicked through to the story, to find out why, you are a fool.  Because there’s nothing you can learn from it; you might even be deceived.

There is probably no clearer teaching of the Church than what happiness is, and how to be happy.  Happiness is our chief goal, the ultimate purpose of our life.  We have a natural desire for happiness, the Catechism teaches, which “God has placed in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it.” (1718)

But “True happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement – however beneficial it may be – such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love.” (1723).

It is what a child can easily grasp: we are created in order to know, love, and serve God, in this world and in the next.  In the tradition, sometimes a distinction is drawn between “objective happiness,” or what makes us happy, which is God, and “subjective happiness,” or our being made happy, which is the possession of God in the Beatific Vision.  But for both God is our happiness.

Note the teaching: “true happiness is not found in. . .well-being” – or, we can add, in “flourishing” or self-actualization.  Happiness is not flourishing.

If God is our happiness, then what makes us happy in this life?  Whatever brings us closer to God and makes ultimate union with him possible.  And thus the “science of happiness” is exactly the same as the “science” of holiness.  Avoid mortal sin.  Have frequent recourse to the sacraments.  Pray daily and often. Do all things for God.  Live in his presence.  Follow his law not your own will.  Aim to live the virtues heroically.  Learn the life of Christ and pattern your life on his.

Beatus” in Latin just means “one of the happy ones.”  Every saint is a study in happiness.  They are our models. They are even “canonized” by the Church, that is to say, made reliable standards for you and for me. Therefore, the “science of happiness,” and the study of the lives of the saints, are one and the same.


To say or imply that there is a special “science” of happiness, which gives insight into happiness, is unjust to the wisdom of the Church.  Research science has nothing to say about happiness.  It is simply the wrong place to look.

How did the Wall Street Journal locate the happiest people, for its story?   By self-reporting.  Self-reporting is a tricky thing, because we are often wrong about ourselves.  If we apply good criteria, then whether someone is “truly happy” in this life is an objective fact, which that person can be wrong about.

The pollsters ask, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”  Of the sample, 12 percent said “very,” 56 percent “pretty,” and 30 percent “not too happy.”   The pollsters gave no guidance as to how respondents should understand the question.  It was left to each person to decide what happiness is and how to decide if he was happy or not.

A good guess would be that most people answer by sensing whether or not they are contented with their lives.  Thus, happiness is implicitly defined as self-contentment, for the purposes of the poll.

But self-contentment does not track true happiness.  We can be content by segmenting our lives, ignoring or not thinking about a secret sin or addiction, or failed relationship that we left behind (perhaps with broken vows), or the problem that we know needs addressing.

We can be content by lowering our standards.  A young man who aims to be the best in his field may be extremely discontented by failures, while an old man who accepts failure is now contented.

We can be content by adopting the wrong standard.  A young man who is working hard to support a family may feel discontented by constant stress and worries, while an old man with a modest lifestyle and no dependents may feel content because he easily pays his bills.

I mention young versus old because that was the greatest gap discovered, according to the story.  The largest percentages of “not too happy” are among the young, and the “very happy” among the old.

Clearly, if you put two persons side-by-side, one seeking God, the other seeking self-contentment, you are positing two different lives, and two different intentions.  Would a saint convinced that he is the greatest of sinners say, if asked, that he was “very happy”?  Was the publican pounding his chest in contrition content with himself?   Sorrowful Dismas on the cross?  Mary anointing the Lord’s feet with her tears?

Philosophers refer to “the paradox of happiness,” which is that it is not possible to attain happiness if one is looking for it.  This makes sense according to false conceptions of happiness.  Happiness as self-contentment is like pleasure, which has the nature of a side effect.  There must be something else that one loves first, to find pleasure in it.

Arguably, it’s not even coherent to seek self-contentment, as that motive would vitiate what we are doing.  You find yourself, say, with a free afternoon and go to a friend’s house to say hello.  If you declare that your purpose was not to see him, but to find contentment through fostering relationships in your life, he should show you the door.  A soldier dying on a beach may have found happiness, but not self-contentment.

Let the last word be: “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 16:35) Our Lord’s Paradox of Happiness.


*Image: Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?) by Annibale Carracci, 1601-02 {National Gallery, London]

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s Happiness is Seldom Universal

Margaret Harper McCarthy’s Torn Apart by Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.