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What do you need to be happy?

Satisfaction of desires is the wrong door to knock on if we expect happiness to be waiting on the other side.

CULTURE MAKING AUTOR 144/Rene_Breuel 26 DE MAYO DE 2024 11:00 h
Photo: [link] Joshua Earle[/link], Unsplash.

It’s a question that occupies our minds more often than we care to admit. And it is very human, even for Christians, to think of happiness as wish fulfillment: desire springs up; desire is satisfied. Pain arises; pain is dealt with.



But are we happy? I don’t think so, for these two reasons:



(1) It is really difficult to attain everything we want;



(2) even if we do, we are not satisfied.



We are perpetually driven forward, always waiting for the next enjoyment that will make us settled and satisfied. We achieve it, but then we move on to the next pursuit.



We are constantly looking for the end of the rainbow, but when it arrives, we don’t find the pot of gold. We only find our empty hearts longing for the next promise of fulfillment.



In the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau, we are moved by a “disproportion between our desires and our faculties.”i Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer adds, “Man is never happy, but spends his whole life striving after something he thinks will make him so.”ii



But we do not give up—we try harder. We earn more degrees, start more relationships, achieve greater professional and ministry success, and accumulate more accomplishments.



But satisfaction of desires does not lead to lasting fulfillment or to a sense of happiness; it is mere satisfaction of desires. It feels as durable as eating cotton candy: “It’s sweet for a moment and dissolves an instant later.”iii



This is not a recent insight revealed by psychological studies. Humanity has always known that we are not made happy by pursuing, or even achieving, everything we desire. Here is how three theologians have described the appetitive nature of our souls:



Gregory of Nyssa: “For as soon as a man satisfies his desire by obtaining what he wants, he starts to desire something else and finds himself empty again; and if he satisfies his desire with this, he becomes empty once again and ready for still another.”iv



Bernard of Clairvaux: “It is folly and extreme madness always to be longing for things that not only can never satisfy but cannot even blunt the appetite; however much you have of these things, you still desire what you have not yet attained; you are always restlessly sighing after what is missing.”v



Thomas Aquinas: “In the desire for wealth and for whatsoever temporal goods... when we already possess them, we despise them, and seek others...



The reason of this is that we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them: and this very fact shows that they are imperfect, and the sovereign good does not consist therein.”vi



As I argue in The Paradox of Happiness, satisfaction of desires is the wrong door to knock on if we expect happiness to be waiting on the other side.



It is not an essence but a property; it is not a substance but a possible by-product.



We experience it only when we are pursuing something else. “The program of becoming happy, which the pleasure principle imposes on us, cannot be fulfilled,” concluded Sigmund Freud. “By none of the paths [we pursue] can we attain all that we desire.”vii



Or as Jesus puts it, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).



René Breuel is the author of The Paradox of Happiness and the founding pastor of Hopera, a church in Rome.



He has a Master of Divinity from Regent College, Vancouver, and a Master of Studies in Creative Writing from Oxford University. You can learn more about his work at renebreuel.org.



 



Notes



i Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quoted in Darrin MacMahon, Happiness, 241.



ii Arthur Schopenhauer, quoted in Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York: Free Press, 2002), 98



iii Neil Clark Warren, Finding Contentment (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 34.



iv Gregory of Nyssa, From Glory to Glory, ed. Jean Danielou (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1961), 87–88.



v Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, and Selections from His Sermons, ed. Hugh Martin (London: SCM Press, 1959), 69.



vi Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strenth: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpuse in the Second Half of Life (London: Green Tree, 2022), 72.



vii Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), 30.



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