Godless Happiness

Article excerpt


It is not enough to be happy to have an excellent life. The point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow and fulfill our potential.(1)

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What is "happiness?" For many religious believers, it is a state of perfection that can only be achieved in the afterlife, when they will receive eternal reward for their good deeds on Earth. More down-to-earth philosophers, like the English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), felt that happiness is indistinguishable from physical pleasure: acts that we enjoy should be maximized, while those that cause harm should be minimized. He even developed a "hedonic calculus" to rate activities on a scale from greater to lesser pleasure. Yet the person he most influenced, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), recognized the inadequacy of a system that focused primarily on physical gratifications, which are fleeting and quite often detrimental in the long run to one's well being. In Mill's famous words, "It is better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied." While ignorance may at times be blissful, it is nothing to be proud of. The intellectual pleasures provide longer-lasting benefits. For Mill, the highest good was to pursue a life of learning, and to apply what was learned to the betterment of the human condition.

In this regard, Mill was harkening back to what is still perhaps the most relevant discussion of "happiness": Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. In this work, written as a manual for his son Nichomacheus, Aristotle discusses the concept of eudaimonia. Usually translated from the ancient Greek as "happiness," a better translation would be "self-fulfillment through personal excellence." For Aristotle, the good life consisted of developing one's natural abilities through the use of reason. A virtuous life is one where proper habits are formed that allow one to reach one's full potential.

Yet Aristotle felt that only a small number of people - excluding poor men, those without families, those who were unattractive, and all women - had the intellectual capacities and the strength of will to achieve eudaimonia. However, this elitist concept of happiness is not one that most humanists would feel comfortable espousing.

Another problem with Aristotle's description is the assumption that the pursuit of knowledge - including self-knowledge - will necessarily be beneficial. For the truth can often be painful. The desire to retreat from reality, to find refuge in comforting myths or consoling hopes, is also a basic part of human nature.

Religions are often able to help shield people from painful realities, such as human mortality, the lack of ultimate justice, and the ravages of an indifferent natural world. It is not surprising that several recent studies report that religious believers are happier than nonbelievers. According to happiness researchers David G. Myers and Ed Diener:

In one Gallup Poll, highly spiritual people were twice as likely as those lowest in spiritual commitment to declare themselves very happy. Other surveys find that happiness and life satisfaction rise with strength or religious affiliation and frequency of worship attendance. One statistical digest of research among the elderly found that one of the best predictors of life satisfaction is religiousness.(2)

One needs to explore in just what sense religious people claim to be happy. Clearly, they experience a sense of social support, as well as a sense of purpose and hope for the future. Within their various religious traditions, there is a commitment to something greater than themselves. But is religion per se necessary for such happiness, especially if one sees it to be a support system based on lies, misinformation, and indoctrination? Can one advocate the need for religion if one is not able to find its doctrines grounded in verifiable facts? In his popular book from 1930, The Conquest of Happiness (still one of the best manuals on how to get the most out of life), the humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell discusses this dilemma:

The men I have known who believed that the English were the lost ten tribes were almost invariably happy, while as for those who believed that the English were only the tribes of Ephriam and Manasseh, their bliss knew no bounds. …