We all want to be happy. Ancient philosophers, like Aristotle, and the giants of theology, like St. Thomas Aquinas, agree: happiness is our ultimate purpose or goal. Everything we desire comes into our hearts because we believe it will make us happy.
Here’s an important nuance, though: Aquinas’s concept of happiness was more allied with the ideas of fullness, completion, or perfection. Aristotle had a similar understanding of happiness, which he referred to as eudaimonia — it had more to do with harmony achieved through repeated virtuous behaviors than it did pleasant feelings of contentment.
Our modern parlance does not usually understand happiness in relation to this kind of perfection. For us, happiness often refers instead to good feelings, a pleasurable state of contentment, or having achieved a certain level of success. That’s why when we ask someone if they are happy what we usually mean is, “Do you feel good?” or “Are you successful?”
Given this disconnect, are we searching for the right thing when we look for happiness? And what about being successful — is ambition wrong? Will it actually make us unhappy? Is it possible to be both successful and happy?
In The Gospel of Happiness, Dr. Christopher Kaczor claims that we have an obligation to strive for positive psychological feelings and contentment — of feeling relatively happy and healthy — to a reasonable degree because it enables us to better love ourselves and others. Feelings of unhappiness — loneliness, desolation, fear, depression, regret, failure, etc. — can cause us to become more narcissistic, selfish, and, ultimately, less loving and service-oriented.
Further, by striving for the right kind of success, we are better able to serve others, take care of our families, and provide resources to people and organizations doing important work. It’s admirable to strive for career advancement — within reason — as a way to better take care of our family or support our communities.
Kaczor adds an important point: A desire for good feelings, contentment, success, and happiness must be grounded in a permanent choice toward serving others and God. Otherwise, that desire is grounded in ourselves, and selfishness is a sure way to be miserable. And the fruit of grounding our live towards service and faith is always joy.
Joy is not dependent on our circumstances, health, or success. Rather joy results from our choice to love others as we love ourselves. Joy is the fruit that stems from serving others, patiently enduring suffering, and trusting in God’s love. We experience joy when we offer up our talents, time, and gifts to lessen the suffering of others.
The problem, therefore, with ambition and aiming for success is that when it’s untethered to serving others in joy, it will paradoxically slide us toward unhappiness. We may still have good feelings, experience pleasure, or have great worldly success, but without orienting our lives around the pursuit of joy we will also experience malaise, restlessness, and isolation.
Just look at NF’s recent journey through depression after landing a number-one album. The album includes an interlude, where he says, “My most considered, like, ‘successful’ moment of my life was the worst. The most depressed I’ve ever been… I got a number-one on Billboard, my song is massive right now. Like, I may never have a song this big again… So I literally had everything that I had always dreamed of happening. And I felt — I didn’t feel happy at all.”
Unlike happiness or success, we can even experience joy even when things are objectively difficult, which is precisely when happiness and success eludes us. Kaczor explains that while we should strive for happiness and success within reason, whether or not we achieve them is ultimately out of our control. We may suffer from poor health, the loss of a loved one, or a disappointing career — all things that are beyond our control to some degree.
The truth is that deep happiness — the kind rooted in joy — is about what happens inside us, not what happens to us. We can control our own dispositions and choices, and growing in faith and love is within our control, no matter what’s going on in our lives. Faith, hope, and love — these are the things that remain. As St. Mother Teresa said of her own vocation, “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
While Mother Terersa did go on to have enormous success (even in the eyes of the world — she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, after all), she also suffered tremendously by taking care of the poorest of the poor in harsh living conditions for decades. While this meant there were times she lacked feelings of happiness or contentment as they are traditionally understood. But anyone who looks at a photograph of this woman can spot the joy in her eyes welling up from the lines worn in her face by a life of sacrifice and love.
Unlike happiness or success, we always have the power to secure joy because we can always choose to love, forgive, be grateful, seek peace, and trust God. And it’s by doing these things that we can come to live lives of meaning and purpose, no matter our circumstances. As Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and psychologist wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
If we strive to serve others out of love, we may or may not also receive the fruits of ambition and success — but we will always receive the deep and lasting joy that gives our life transcendent meaning and purpose.