The True Meaning of Happiness

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In his message for the celebration of the 50th world day of peace, His Holiness Pope Francis stated that “the eight beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-10) provide a portrait of the person we could describe as blessed, good and authentic[1]”. There are two passages in the Gospels that record the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-26), both of them pronouncing as “blessed” those who are poor[2], hungry[3], grieving[4] and persecuted[5]. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes adds a list of “woes” to those this world would most definitely see as blessed—the rich, those who are well-fed, those “who laugh now” and those who are well-spoken of by everyone[6]. At first, Jesus’ definition of “blessedness” may seem very strange. After all, who in their right mind would want to weep, go hungry, live in poverty or persecution? And didn’t Jesus Himself claim that He had come so that we may “have life, and have it to the full[7]?” Since when did fullness mean hunger, mourning, weeping, poverty or a general state of misery? Is this not an oxymoron, a nonsensical contradiction?

The clue to resolving this apparent contradiction lies within the Beatitudes themselves. Jesus pronounces words of woe to those who are “rich” because they have already received their comfort (Luke 6:24; emphasis added). Indeed, much of what our world calls “happiness” can only be accomplished through the act of forgetting—we forget our sorrows by going to the bar, the cinema, or the shopping mall; we try to gain a measure of happiness, bliss and security by creating our own little worlds and enclosing ourselves within them.

Our “little bubbles of bliss” are fragile and illusory, and yet we invest so much time and energy to build them, fortify them and forget ourselves within them. How many educated women, for example, refuse to think or even pray about the systemic injustice, poverty and inequality plaguing our world, choosing instead to spend most of their time beautifying themselves and their houses? How many young people spend all of their time working hard for that dream car, house and vacation, believing that these things will guarantee them a lifetime of bliss, and insulate them against poverty and sorrow? And when things start to go wrong in our relationships, how many of us seek to drown our sorrows in the short, thrilling moments promised to us by a drink, a shopping spree, or even an illicit relationship? These kinds of happiness only produce woe in the long run because they are based on complacency and an escape from reality.

Even those of us who consider ourselves “morally good” must be on guard against this type of illusory happiness. In his TED talk The Revolution of Tenderness, Pope Francis warns us against a “habit, by people who call themselves ‘respectable’, of not taking care of the others, thus leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road[8].” In a similar vein, the African American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thus warned the many racist, segregated churches of his day: “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century[9].”

The question remains, however: If true happiness cannot be found in complacency or ignorance of this world’s brokenness, then how can we attain true happiness? After all, happiness is what we all long and strive for—actually, it’s what we’re all created for. We were created to enjoy perfect happiness and blessedness in a loving union with our Creator. Sin, of course, broke this union and introduced sorrow into our world—the sorrow of brokenness, distance and alienation, together with a host of other mortal ills. Christ came into this world, not only to heal us of this sorrow, but also to partake of it and to give it meaning. That is why He comes to us in the Eucharist—for what is the Eucharist but God being broken for us and together with us? That is why, for all those who love Him, even the most blissful moments in this world contain notes of sweet sorrow within them. It is the sorrow of a Bride who rejoices in the gifts and veiled presence of her Bridegroom, yet knowing that the hour of Consummation is yet to come. Therefore she hungers, for she knows that even this world’s finest delicacies cannot truly fill her innermost being—she was made for greater and more lasting food than that which goes into the stomach and then out of the body[10]. Therefore, even in laughter, she weeps, for she understands that her mortal eyes cannot yet see her Lord face to face[11]. Therefore, even in moments of earthly splendor, she recognizes her poverty, for those earthly riches are transient and cannot compare with the priceless love of her Savior, who despite being rich has become poor for her sake[12]. Therefore, for her Lord’s sake she rejoices “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties[13]”, for she knows that He is with her always and will use those hardships for a greater purpose.

While this world’s happiness is based on an illusory forgetfulness, the Christian’s happiness is Love itself—it is Love continually being reborn, growing, incarnated, enjoyed, partaken, tested, purified, and eventually, consummated and glorified. In his TED talk, Pope Francis mentioned that happiness is only attainable “when we don’t lock our door to the outside world[14]”, for “happiness can only be discovered as a gift of harmony between the whole and each single component[15].”

We will find and attain this happiness when we love God and one another with all our hearts, always striving to see and serve Christ in our fellowmen. Only then will we be able to practice and live out St. Paul’s exhortation to the church in Corinth, which is to do everything in love[16].

[1] Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace”, Message for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace, January 1, 2017, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20161208_messaggio-l-giornata-mondiale-pace-2017.html.

[2] Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20

[3] Matthew 5:6, Luke 6:21a

[4] Matthew 5:4, Luke 6:21b

[5] Matthew 5:10, Luke 6:22

[6] Luke 6:24-26

[7] John 10:10b

[8] Pope Francis, “The Revolution of Tenderness”, National Catholic Register, April 26, 2017, http://www.ncregister.com/blog/guest-blogger/the-revolution-of-tenderness-pope-francis-gives-surprise-ted-talk.

[9] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, African Studies Center—University of Pennsylvania, accessed September 1, 2019, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[10] Matthew 15:17

[11] 1 Corinthians 13:12, 2 Corinthians 5:6

[12] 2 Corinthians 8:9

[13] 2 Corinthians 12:10

[14] Pope Francis, “The Revolution of Tenderness”, National Catholic Register, April 26, 2017, http://www.ncregister.com/blog/guest-blogger/the-revolution-of-tenderness-pope-francis-gives-surprise-ted-talk.

[15] Ibid.

[16] 1 Corinthians 16:14

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Audrey Yu (Maria Audrey Lukito) is a Chinese Indonesian writer. She graduated from The College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA and is currently studying theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. By the grace of God, she was received into the Catholic church in Easter 2014. Her personal website can be accessed at www.audreyyujiahui.com.