There was an article in Cosmo this week with a title that summarizes all that’s wrong with Cosmo and modern society as a whole: “I eloped at 25, divorced at 26, and dated my way across Europe all summer.” Of course, by “dated my way across Europe” she means that she slept with half the continent.
The author, Elise, says she “started fighting” with her husband and within a few months they both decided that their differences were irreconcilable. Despite counseling, she says, “neither of us was happy.” So, exhausted from 12 whole months of marriage, Elise embarked on a voyage of self-discovery and STD cultivation. She met random dudes in half a dozen countries and had sex with them, learning quite a lot as she went, though she can’t really explain what exactly she learned or why sex was a necessary component in learning it. Finally, she came home and started dating some other guy. The end.
Well, not really the end. 20 years from now I’m sure we’ll get the follow up article: “I’m alone and miserable and it’s everyone’s fault but mine.” After all, you may be able to fill the emptiness in your soul with frivolous sex when you’re young and physically desirable, but that phase is fleeting. People who don’t want to “waste” their beauty and youth on a spouse, so they waste it instead on strangers who don’t love them or even care what happens to them tomorrow, will be shocked when a tomorrow comes where even strangers aren’t interested anymore. This is where the single-minded, utterly selfish pursuit of “happiness” at all costs inevitably leads: to rejection, despair, and a quiet, unnoticed death on a lonely hospital bed.
As Elise helpfully demonstrated, “do what makes you happy” is poison in a marriage. Many a vow has been broken because one or both partners decide to chase “happiness” instead of commitment, fidelity, and love. “I deserve to be happy,” reports the legion of serial divorcees, as they drift on to the next spouse, and the next, and the next, and the next, looking for the one — the one, finally — who might cure the misery they’ve inflicted on themselves. Increasingly unhappy, yet increasingly convinced that they deserve to be.
Many people in my generation, determined to “do what makes them happy,” have elected to forgo marriage and parenthood entirely. They’ve predicted that family life will not always be an amusement park of sheer excitement and euphoria, so it isn’t worth it. Recently, I posted something on Twitter jokingly complaining about the fact that my kids always lose their shoes, and a guy responded by saying that this— the shoe thing, I guess — is why he never wants kids. “Too much of a hassle,” he explained. The deeper fulfillment of parenthood will not compensate, in his mind, for the annoyance of looking for a toddler’s sneakers.
It is not a coincidence that the “do what makes you happy” mantra is rarely offered as a justification for a healthy, generous, or productive decision. It is always the bum, the drunk, the couch potato, the loser, who is doing what makes him happy. Stable, successful people are doing something else, something bigger. Indeed, if you ask someone why they go to work every day, or why they stay faithful to their spouse, or why they’re attentive to their children, or why they care for a relative with dementia, or why they give to charity, or why they exercise restraint, or why they keep their promises, or why they save themselves for marriage, or why they engage in a hundred other good and worthwhile pursuits, the answer will never be, “Well, I’m just doing what makes me happy.” Which isn’t to say that these activities always make them unhappy, just that they are reaching for a thing deeper and fuller than momentary gratification.
It’s relevant to note that the word “happiness” comes from “hap,” meaning chance or fortune. By definition, happiness is fleeting and dependent upon environmental factors. Happiness is an emotional response to happenstance. It’s not bad in itself, but neither is it solid enough to serve as the foundation of our lives. We’ll never get anywhere, then, if we only ever ask ourselves whether this or that action will make us happy. And whatever direction we go, we won’t stay on that road for long because nothing will make us happy all the time.
The only sustained and entirely reliable happiness we’ll find is the passive, numbed, brain dead variety that we derive from television. That’s why so many of us can’t manage to commit ourselves to any obligation yet we’ll watch every episode of a TV series like we’re married to it. Think of the person who has never been in a job for longer than 12 months, or a relationship for longer than 6, yet has been watching the Walking Dead religiously for 8 years (in spite of the fact that the show has been terrible for the last 7).
The Daily Wire ran a piece on Tuesday about young men who’ve elected to play video games rather than get jobs. Their reason? Video games make them happy. Doubtless, many of these “happy” people are on anti-depressants, convinced that the constant pangs of despair lying under their “happiness” must be the result of some sort of mental disease. It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that they’ve been sitting on a beanbag chair in a basement staring at a screen for the last quarter century.
As we can clearly see, “will this make me happy?” is the wrong line of inquiry. I can’t tell anything about a given action based on whether or not it will make me happy. There are a million bad and destructive things that would probably make me happy, at least for a time. There are a million good and fruitful things that will probably make me unhappy, at least for a time. The question is irrelevant. It’s like asking whether a certain food will fill my stomach. Yes, maybe it will, but with what?
I think the the better questions to ask, before we do anything, are these: Is this right? Is it my duty? Is it productive? Is it healthy? Is it worthwhile? Will it bear good fruit? Will it make me a better person? Is this what God wants? If we can check all of those boxes, we should do it. Even if it causes us unhappiness sometimes, it will also bring us something better: joy. A joyful person, even when he is unhappy, still is sustained by the lasting contentment and peace that comes from a life grounded in faith, love, and virtue. You can never go wrong by doing what brings joy, but those things always require some measure of effort and sacrifice.
The person who chases only happiness would like to have joy as well, but he’s not so crazy about the effort and sacrifice part, so he makes do. And that is why we live today in a society filled with happy, optimistic, positive-thinking, joyless, miserable, lonely, smiling, empty people. They have settled for mere happiness, and even that they rarely find.
If only they’d aim a little higher.