During my early morning reading on the train to Manhattan, I stumbled upon a full-page ad for the “One Day University,” which offers intriguing courses on topics like Moby Dick, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Beatles and Beethoven, and morality in America.
Midway through the list, I saw one touted as “Harvard’s #1 Most Popular Course.” I knew I was destined to enroll in it because I always wanted to attend Harvard, but the only thing that prevented me was my high school grades.
Here was my big chance to take a “positive psychology” course titled, “How You Can Master the Science of Happiness,” which sounded a little like advertisements I’d read on matchbook covers during my younger years when I sat in singles bars looking for happiness and found only misery.
Over the past decade, pop psychologists have turned the pursuit of happiness into a science, and an increasing number of studies have attempted to chart the prerequisites of true happiness.
Some of the results are a bit perplexing: The married man is happier than the single man. The middle-aged woman isn’t as happy as the middle-aged man. Republicans are happier than Democrats – or maybe it’s the other way around.
Whenever I ask whether people are happy – myself included – there’s always a tense pause before they respond. And no one ever seems entirely sure what the correct answer is.
Most people want to say “yes,” but would prefer to honestly answer “no.” Generally, they end up responding “yes,” but with some serious qualifications, such as, “Yes, if my husband treated me better.” Or, “Yes, if my wife treated me better.” Or, “Yes, if I had a different job.” Or, “Yes, if I had enough saved for retirement.” Or, “Yes, if I had kids and a new car and better health, not to mention tons of money.”
A recent study concluded that fame, good looks and wealth may actually be sources of anxiety and unhappiness, and that personal growth and meaningful relationships offer us a greater sense of self-fulfillment and contentment.
For most of us, happiness is premised on external factors. Everyone has a formula that includes preconditions such as good health, a hefty bank account, a loving spouse, respectful kids and a high-paying job with a corner office.
I confess that, over the years, I’ve made a habit of collecting books about happiness, many of them bestsellers like Stumbling on Happiness, Happier and Happy at Last. And those are just the titles piled up on my nightstand, not the ones stored in boxes in the basement.
The irony is there are tons of books and articles about how to be happy, and yet we’re surrounded by unhappiness, largely because this relentless search for fulfillment and joy overlooks a key component. The central component. And that is God.
Too many people put happiness before God, going all the way back to Aristotle, who said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Of course, he never knew about Jesus, and he never knew about 12-Step Programs where they teach you that a fundamental rule of contentment is to “Let go and let God.”
I didn’t find the key to happiness in Aristotle’s writings. I found it in a book of meditations titled Twenty-Four Hours a Day, which my father read every morning during his years in AA.
“We cannot find true happiness by looking for it,” it said. “Seeking pleasure does not bring happiness in the long run, only disillusionment. … Happiness is a by-product of living the right kind of life. True happiness comes as a result of living in all respects the way you believe God wants you to live, with regard to yourself and to other people. The only way to be truly happy is to try to do God’s will.”
What a revolutionary idea. It was simple and straightforward. No grandiose philosophy. No tenets of pop psychology. No attitudinal surveys. No need for a magic formula. No need for a course at Harvard. And it didn’t really matter whether I was rich or poor, adolescent or middle-aged, Democrat or Republican. God has a plan for all of us, and that plan is the path to happiness.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.