Several years ago, Dr. Darrin McMahon, a history professor at Florida State University, wrote a landmark book on a history of the pursuit of happiness. In the book, Happiness: A History, he describes two different approaches that people have taken over the years in their search for a happy life.
Does pleasure lead to happiness?
The most natural belief that people have is that a life filled with pleasure will lead to happiness. Pleasure generally makes us feel good, and good feelings are a major component of living a happy life. For this reason we equate pleasure with happiness.
It was Sigmund Freud who came along and said that when you look at people’s lives, their only purpose in life is to be happy, and that sex is the primary source of all human happiness. Many believe that it is Freud’s teachings that gave rise to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and has had so much influence on peoples’ views of sex today.
Pleasure will bring delight. Happiness requires a great deal of self-restraint.
Over the centuries most social critics have concluded that the pursuit of happiness through pleasure can bring a lot of delight into your life, but it cannot bring lasting happiness. Also, the demand for pleasure is forever at war with reality. It has the potential to enslave and then destroy you.
In McMahon’s book there is a second approach to the pursuit of happiness that is not as obvious and is somewhat counter-intuitive. It is the path of virtue. It is to develop a life of strong character. McMahon says this is more of an age-old approach, “tying happiness to higher things: to God, virtue, or to the right ordering of the soul.” Happiness is considered a reward for living well.
The founder of happiness
Most people know that Thomas Jefferson is the author of The Declaration of Independence and that in the written documents are the famous words that guarantee that citizens have rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In reference to the word happiness, Jefferson had this to say, “Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness.” Benjamin Franklin, a signer on the Declaration of Independence, said, “virtue and happiness are mother and daughter.” In other words, both men believed that you cannot find happiness without virtue.
C. S. Lewis, a scholar in both classical and medieval literature, also saw the importance of virtue in the search for happiness and the good life. In fact both Lewis, in the Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings, emphasize the need for people to have character and virtue in order to live in a complex and confusing world. Happiness will never be found unless people know how to rise to the moral challenges around them.
What feels right is moral
Unfortunately, little emphasis is placed on a life of virtue and character today. In fact most college students will stare blankly if you should try to engage them in a conversation on this issue. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, recently asked a group of students to name the most recent moral dilemma that they were faced with. Seventy percent could not come up with even one. Smith pressed the students for an answer, and most of them replied, “what feels right for me is moral for me, and if it feels right for you, then it is moral for you.” This is the way that many students today view morality.
Everyone is going in a different moral direction
Journalist David Brooks says that we, especially teenagers, have lost our vocabulary on how to talk about character. Brooks once asked several professors at Princeton University, “Do you instill character in your students?” The professors responded that students need to develop character, but that they (the professors) have no idea how to teach it to them. Though I am sure that parents want their children to grow up and be people of strong character, I am not sure that they know how to teach it to them either.
So what is virtue? What does it mean to be a man or woman of character? Historically, people of strong character recognize that there is a universal, moral standard by which to live, and that standard has been given to us by God. It is what enables us to determine what is morally right and wrong. A person of character is naturally inclined to do the right thing, even if everyone else is going in a different direction. Therefore, virtuous people often must go down some lonely roads. This is why people of character are generally the most courageous; many times it is not easy or popular to do the right thing.
As you grow in character, you ares building muscles of restraint
When we think of character, we generally think of honesty, integrity, diligence, fairness, and selflessness. But at the heart of character is the ability to restrain our desires. As a person grows in character, he is building muscles of restraint.
Furthermore, our character serves as a compass that guides us through life. It ultimately allows us to know who we are and what our lives are all about. Those who have little character find themselves lost in this life without a compass, with no sense of direction.
But how do we become people of strong character? It can’t just be an act of the will or of making decisions to be more religious. Christ must do a work in us. As we go deeper in our relationship with Him, He will begin to transform us. As one of the early church fathers said,
“the historic Christian faith is all about the life of God working in the soul of man.”
A major part of that work is the transformation of our character. And it is our character that impacts the quality of our lives.