Pursuing True Happiness in a World Without Truth
By Clifford Staples
Among the many confusions in our modern-secular culture is the fundamentally incoherent idea—which is also a promise, a hope, and a dream—that true happiness is possible without truth, but instead can be had with more freedom and more power. What the evidence shows—not that evidence carries much weight with the ideologues of secular humanism—is that more freedom and power has not and does not result in true happiness, but instead only in various kinds of pseudo-happiness, none of which can satisfy our desire for the real thing, and all of which serve in the end only to deepen our misery, appearances to the contrary.
Against this secular-modern understanding of happiness we can and should turn to our faith, not to mention common sense, to affirm that true happiness is impossible without truth. For St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, happiness is the joy produced in us by truth. To be truly happy means coming to know how things really are, experiencing “…reality in its ultimate root…” as Thomas Merton puts it, joy being the natural consequence of this experience. Understood in this way, it is possible to see how the secular-modern idea of pursuing happiness is fundamentally mistaken. Happiness is not something that can be pursued, but can only be received, with gratitude, as we receive a gift, which in fact it is. So understood, we are the creatures drawn to the light of truth, and it is only in this light that we rejoice and so are made happy. Anything less is not true happiness, whatever else it might be, or whatever else in our confusion we try to call it.
To suggest that truth is the only source of true happiness is of course exactly contrary to the skepticism and relativism of our age, a world increasingly founded on the denial of any truth or order not our own. This is a world that promises, falsely, that we can make ourselves truly happy. Under this “dictatorship of relativism” as Benedict XVI called it, everyone is understood to have a right to “his own truth,” and so “his own happiness.” This is dangerous nonsense that encourages us into Sisyfussian lives of futile searching, lives laced with sadness and disappointment no matter how successful, or into disordered, destructive, and miserable lives people then declare themselves “happy” to be living. No one should take such claims at face value, yet there is today an entire field of happiness “research” that does, an industry that functions primarily to enable the lie that happiness is whatever we say it is and that people are happy simply because they say they are.
In a world in which truth is denied, and in which the pursuit of happiness therefore devolves into getting whatever we decide in our freedom to pursue, unhappiness is understood to follow from the inability to get what we want. Thus, unhappiness is thought to arise from a lack of freedom and power, things which, unlike true happiness, can be successfully pursued, either by individuals or on behalf of those who lack freedom and power relative to others. The latter is, of course, the rationale behind modern egalitarian political movements, all of which promise, at least implicitly, that freedom and equality will bring happiness. Unfortunately, while freedom can be expanded, and power can be had, or redistributed, neither freedom nor power alone can bring true happiness. And so the promise of these movements turns out to be a false promise, a lesson that the newly freed and empowered often have to learn the hard way. What matters more to one’s happiness than getting more freedom and power is the end toward which we order whatever freedom and power we have. Unless we order ourselves to the truth, more freedom and more power will bring only more unhappiness, examples of which abound.