A Manual for Happiness

In contemporary internet parlance, one of the most popular expressions is “hellscape.” The term, coined by the surprisingly clever and loquacious Millennial generation, denotes the experience of living in a world that looks and feels like what humans have traditionally taken to be the place of punishment in the afterlife. 

It seems as if we are no longer living in Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History.” Rather, the world in which we live is increasingly marked by the restriction of Enlightenment liberties, economic decline, and emotional and spiritual malaise. Many people (even young people) are making a lot of money, and enjoying what the American Century in which their parents and grandparents grew up called “the good life.” Nonetheless, suicide, drug, and even media consumption rates tell a different story. Even successful young people are not necessarily happy. 

This problem of human happiness has been perplexing to people of all eras of history. In his recent work, How and How Not to Be Happy, University of Texas philosopher J. Budziszewski tackles it through an accessible introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of human happiness. Drawing from Aquinas, Budziszewski argues that material things can bring people comfort, but that it is ultimately God, as revealed by Christianity, who will satisfy the deepest longing of the human heart. 

Having already written a scholarly tome for Cambridge University on Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness in 2020, Budziszewski applies his scholarly research in How and How Not to Be Happy in a much more accessible fashion to the lay reader, using pop culture references and personal anecdotes to pepper his argument. Budziszewski’s work is especially apropos in our pandemic age of anxiety, war, and rumors of war. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to be happy. 

Fame and Fortune

In the early portion of the book, Budziszewski discusses human misery, which modern prosperity has emphatically not cured. The Texas Catholic philosopher notes that polling of Americans provides an ambiguous picture of the “happiness” index, although rates of drug use and suicide are among many indicators that Americans (and the people of the wider developed world) are not happy at all. In our current era, “conspiracy culture” is no longer a marginal phenomenon, and the world is largely distrustful of its economic, political, and even religious leadership. The world’s population has flocked to a host of internet gurus and con-artists who promise happiness through pop versions of Jungian psychology or stoicism (this is not to suggest that all Jungian psychologists or internet stoics are conmen—indeed there is much wisdom in Jung and stoicism), or in a new fitness or diet fad. 

Why are people so lost, even now, when it seems we should have everything we need to thrive? Budziszewski considers the work of King’s College of London’s Rafael Euba, who argues that humans are hard-wired to be unhappy in order to further the chances of survival and reproduction. This argument has some natural appeal, offering an explanation for the frustrating conundrum of lingering human unhappiness. Nevertheless, Budziszewski is unconvinced.

He then goes through a chapter-by-chapter listing of goods that at least appear to make humans happy. Some of these can, to a limited extent, reduce misery. Unsurprisingly though, Budziszewski does not believe that material goods in themselves can ever secure human happiness.

As endless philosophers and folk tales have argued, wealth does not bring happiness. Quite often, it brings more problems. In his chapter on wealth, Budziszewski critiques the endless barrage of self-help books that teach their readers how to “think like the rich.” In Budziszewski’s view, these books wrongly focus on the accumulation of wealth as the catalyst to further happiness. Budziszewski, however, does not dismiss “materialism” as such, noting the many good things that money can buy, which make life easier and more enjoyable. In a Thomistic key, Budziszewski argues that wealth, and the material goods that wealth buys, are means to produce a comfortable life as opposed to ends in themselves. 

Budziszewski further notes that, while suicide rates are higher among the poor than the middle class—$60,000 dollars per annum seems to be the threshold one needs to cross in order to be less tempted to end his or her life—suicide rates, in fact, increase when one moves into a “wealthy” neighborhood. Wealth can, in fact, lead to boredom and stagnation. Indeed, wealth does provide comfort, but it does not shield the wealthy from the suffering that is endemic to human life. Moreover, as religious leaders and pop psychology experts have argued to the present day, suffering and poverty can often produce resilience, strength, and gratitude. 

Budziszewski makes special note of how the relationship between honor (or fame) and happiness has taken a new twist in the contemporary, post-millennial milieu. In the wild world of Web 2.0, young people (and sometimes old) will engage in all sorts of degrading and dangerous activities for Andy Warhol’s famous “15 minutes of fame.” Noting again that humans naturally desire admiration and affection, Budziszewski does not dismiss what is natural in humans but rather notes that even the fulfillment of natural desires does not make us happy. Budziszewski notes, like many classical and medieval philosophers before him, that adults chastise children for the pranks they pull in order to garner attention, while at the same time performing similar hijinks themselves in order to gain popularity and admiration.

Human desire is infinite, but humans cannot lift their hearts and minds above the everydayness of human life.

Humans—both old and young—do not simply want attention for good behavior; rather, they crave attention as an end in itself. Budziszewski provides an example from Machiavelli who himself chastised the tyrant Giovanpagolo Baglioni for not seeking glory—even if that glory must come from a wicked deed. Budziszewski ultimately argues that the good man or woman will do the right thing regardless of the fame it brings. The person who seeks glory will seek the temporary applause that is, ultimately, just a “candle in the wind.” 

Finding Rest in God

Like St. Thomas Aquinas before him, Budziszewski ultimately points to God and Christianity as the antidote to the deepest longings of the human heart. Budziszewski dismisses the attempts by contemporary technocrats to create a defied “post-human” being to replace humanity. This is foolish talk, as the author of Genesis knew. Human desire is infinite, but humans cannot lift their hearts and minds above the everydayness of human life. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God, but there is an infinite gap between human and divine life.

Without the love of God, Budziszewski argues, law and the urges of conscience will only feel oppressive. Moreover, without the hope of redemption, human life seems hopelessly mired in sin and evil. Ultimately, humans need divine revelation. God communicates to the human race in a manner that is supra-rational (but not irrational). Christianity, Budziszewski argues, provides the deepest and most profound revelation of God through his incarnate son, Jesus Christ. 

For many readers, the biggest objection to Budziszewski’s book may be that his arguments are so rational and convincing. The age in which we are thrown has often been called “post-truth.” It is an age in which “feelings don’t care about facts.” Contemporary political discourse does not rely on rational argument to convince; rather, it utilizes emotional half-truths and even outright lies in order to further a desired conclusion. Street violence, court-packing, and misleading images have replaced reasoned discourse. Ironically, both Baby Boomers and Millennials—the two dominant generations of the contemporary milieu—have been tutored their whole lives to live and act on emotion. Whether it be the crooning of the Beatles or Billie Eilish, the bulk of people living in the West today have been told to ignore reason and follower their hearts. 

Nonetheless, reasoned discourse is not entirely dead. In How and How Not to be Happy,  Budziszewski provides a well-wrought argument for God as revealed through Christianity. This is the solution to the deepest longings of the human heart.  Riffing on the Greek playwright Aristophanes’ famous “soul mate” speech in Plato’s Symposium (in which Aristophanes argues that humans are driven by an intense desire for fulfillment), Budziszewski argues that humans are for a certain je ne sais quoi, something that is intangible and transcendent. Countering arguments new and old, Budziszewski notes that humans do not long for transitory things, or for a nebulous harmony with the universe. There is something within us that longs for a Divine Person. 

Like St. Thomas Aquinas before him, Budziszewski does not dismiss the “natural goods” to which humans are drawn; rather, the Texas philosopher points to a deeper and more satisfying Good that is above and beyond the horizon of beings, and the limits of human reason.  

As Budziszewski argues, the human heart can ultimately be satisfied only through a deep encounter with the Creator who fashioned the human heart to love Him.