This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.
“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Layrd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”
Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”
But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.
Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.
Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.
Thus, says Augustine,
there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).
Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,
A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).
Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.