A Modest Proposal: A Religious Definition of Happiness


A religious definition of happiness is suggested. The purpose of the definition is to help seekers find answers for their specific circumstances. While it reflects a monotheistic faith, the definition is open-ended enough to facilitate discussion on the nature of happiness with other religious traditions.

As a college chaplain, I have seen many students and adults bump up against the question "what is happiness?" It usually comes up when there is a drastic change in someone's circumstances such as financial loss, death of a loved one or serious illness or injury to themselves. In my role as chaplain, I want to console, to comfort and provide answers to those who seek guidance. Yet in my role as professor of religion and philosophy, I also want people to find answers that work for them in their particular circumstances. What I have come up with is a working definition of happiness I offer to those who seek some answers. It is deliberately general which challenges people to fill in the details. Yet it is specific enough that it gives people a direction in which to proceed. It is in this same spirit in which I now offer this definition of happiness in this essay. An additional hope is that this suggested definition of happiness might also be useful in creating dialogue among various faith traditions. While they may never completely agree on what is happiness, a major concern of each faith tradition is the happiness of its adherents.

To begin, I take a cue from Alasdair MacIntyre who argues that narrative is the way we give order and meaning to our lives. [1] Thus I will not start from some abstract idea of happiness. Instead, I will tell the story of "Jill" who was forced by circumstances in her life to start thinking about what makes for happiness.

Jill has been feeling restless about her life in recent weeks but she does not know why. She has been successful in her job as an accountant and has been dating her boyfriend Ron for three years. They are talking about getting engaged. Jill also has several friends she sees regularly outside of work, so nothing seems to be missing in her life. Yet when she is alone and taking inventory of her life, she feels a vague sadness about it all. She instinctively wants to go somewhere but she does not know where. She wants to do something but she does not know what.

Jill first noticed this vague sadness and restlessness when Donna, the mother of her best friend Mary, passed away. Donna had been an active woman all of her life. She had successfully run her own company for years. In her retirement, Donna spent much of her time with friends and working on her favorite charity projects. All of this came to an end when Donna suffered a severe stroke at the age of 68. She never recovered and wasted away for a year in a nursing home before she finally died. Jill was there for Mary through the whole ordeal. It wasn't until after Donna's funeral that Jill realized how much it had affected her.

It scared Jill to see an active person like Donna struck down so suddenly. Jill is also disturbed at how sad and lethargic Mary is now, several months after her mother's death. What scares Jill is that she sees herself in both Mary and her mother Donna.

Jill has never given much thought to old age. But her own parents are getting older now and will someday pass on. She panics at the thought of her parent's lives ending like Donna's. All of those productive years and what does it add up to? A body that fails you and a slow, lingering death?

Jill has never been very religious but she finds herself wondering about things she has not thought of since childhood. Is there really a God? Does God care about us? Is there life beyond death? Or is this fragile life all we have? A few years of activity, ending in physical incapacitation and death? Jill believes she should feel happy with her life, but instead she feels that vague sadness. Most important of all, she has Ron who wants to spend his life with her. This more than anything should make her happy. But even her love for Ron is not enough to overcome the sadness she feels. If love does not make her happy, then what in the world will?

The questions facing Jill about love, happiness and death are not abstract questions found only in philosophy classes. They are very basic, practical concerns about how to live one's life. The answers Jill finds can make the difference between enduring life as if it were a long race we have no choice in running, or living with a sense of joy and freedom. Where do we begin to answer Jill's questions?

Happiness Defined

The basic question behind all of Jill's concerns is what is happiness. I realize I am treading on tenuous ground in attempting to define happiness. Greater spirits than mine have tried to define happiness and met with mixed results. But a working understanding of happiness can accomplish at least two things for Jill. First, it will keep Jill from looking for happiness in places where she will fail to find it. Second, this working definition of happiness may be a gateway through which Jill can dialogue with the various religious traditions. So without further ado, here is my definition of happiness.

HAPPINESS: The belief that one is part of a Process or Plan that extends beyond one's own needs and aspirations, that will have a positive impact on other peoples' lives, and will continue after one's death.

Let us take a look at this definition phrase by phrase.

That extends beyond one's own needs and aspirations. It seems commonplace wisdom anymore that getting everything we want in life, particularly of a material nature, does not make for happiness. For example, there was the usually disparaging acronym `yuppy' from a few years back, and how the material acquisitiveness of the eighties mellowed to a search for spiritual meaning in the nineties. [2] But there is more involved in this phrase from my definition than simply realizing the limits of material gain.

One version of happiness is found in the saying "moderation in all things." The belief is that if we learn to live a controlled and moderated existence within limits, we will find happiness. [3] The limits described include our social and political circumstances, as well as self-imposed limits to our desires and ambitions. If we concentrate on our small corner of the world, such as home and family, we will find happiness. However, there problems with the view of happiness as moderation in all things.

Happiness is More Than Moderation in All Things

One major problem with the idea of happiness as moderation is that it breeds a narrow, even fragmented view of the world. If we concentrate upon our own needs we have little or no incentive to improve the lot of other people less fortunate than us. Happiness as moderation becomes a commodity that we need not spread around to others beyond our immediate circle of friends and family. Happiness as moderation easily slides into narcissism clothed in moral attire.

Jill's situation is a good example of the limits of happiness as moderation. Her life is neatly divided into separate compartments: boyfriend, job, friends. Her life seems to be complete but she does not fell complete. The neat little compartments that constitute Jill's life have been shattered by the messy realities of Donna's illness and death. Watching Donna's slow death and its affect on Mary shook Jill's illusion of a complete life. Jill's sense of sadness and feeling that she wants to go somewhere and do something is her subconscious rebelling against her fragmented life.

Another major drawback to the idea of happiness as moderation is that in times of social and political upheaval, happiness as moderation is beyond the reach of many or even most people. [4] While the last few tears we have seen a strong domestic economy, that will eventually change. Jill is fortunate that she is relatively well off financially, but even in her material circumstances she is not happy. How much more difficult would it be for her if she lost her job? What of the many people who have and will lose their jobs to changing world markets? What of the many refugees produced by the increasing number of wars being fought around the world? Surely happiness must consist of more than a stable means of livelihood.

A Plan or Process?

The belief that one is part of a Process or Plan. The only way I know to overcome the inherent narrowness of happiness as moderation is to broaden our vision of life. A great many people feel the need to belong to something greater than themselves. It could be a religion, as this part of the definition obviously describes. Or it might be a social or political movement, an organization, even the latest fashion trends. All of these possibilities can give us the feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves. Jill is beginning to face up to her need to belong to something greater than her own individual existence. The questions she is asking about God, life after death, and is there something more to life, will all lead her to the need to belong to something greater than herself. She needs some reassurance about the purpose of life in general as she faces up to her own mortality in particular.

I have opted for a religious solution to the questions Jill is asking. I use the ambiguous terms "Process or Plan" because I think happiness can be reached in a number of ways. The Eastern religions with which I am familiar, such as Buddhism and Taoism, describe the ultimate scheme of things as a Process. Tao is always changing and moving, [5] and the five skhandas of Buddhism are shifting and mixing in new combinations. [6] The term "Plan " would encompass the various notions of Divine Providence found in the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While I have my own preferences, I do not feel I can adjudicate which tradition makes for the greatest happiness. So I include both "Process" and "Plan" in my definition of happiness.

Some personal experience also leads me to include both "Process" and "Plan" in my definition of happiness. My own experience of prayer and guidance has been both frustrating and exhilarating. It has been frustrating at times when I think there is a Plan and it seems instead that prayer is more of an open-ended Process. For example, it has been my own experience that prayer results in the continuous letting go of fears and hurts that get in the way of my compassion for others. Yet my experience of prayer and guidance has also been exhilarating. For example, there are the many times I have `accidentally' met interesting people, or `happened' to run across an article or book I needed for a current writing project. I have felt the presence of a guiding purpose in my life too many times to completely dismiss the idea that God has a Plan of some kind. Thus I keep moving between Plan and Process in my theological outlook regarding prayer and God, and as a result I include "Process or Plan" in my definition of happiness.

Jill has a wide range of religious options from which to choose. Her lack of religious background will make it difficult for her to know where to start. But at least she sees that her questions about love, happiness and death all come from natural events in her life. The questions of what makes for happiness, if not love, comes from her relationship with Ron. The questions about God and life after death come from her experience of Donna's illness and death. Jill displays the "it won't happen to me" attitude so many of us have from our younger years. This is especially true if people come from backgrounds where there has been little long term illness or financial hardship. The idyllic safety of childhood becomes an expectation, even a demand that life continues to be safe and predictable in adulthood. But sooner or later the messiness and unpredictability of life breaks through as it has for Jill. Watching Donna's lingering death and its affect on Mary has changed Jill's vision of life. Whether Jill chooses a religion that offers a Plan or Process, the vision of life she eventually chooses will hopefully give her positive answers to the questions she is asking.

That will have a positive impact on other peoples' lives. If happiness is being part of a Process or Plan that extends beyond ourselves, hopefully such a Process or Plan will have a positive impact on the lives of others. Within our own circle of friends and family we can have a visible impact. But many people feel a desire to "do something more" with their lives. They want to make a difference by leaving the world in better shape than how they found it to be. What "do something more" means specifically will vary from person to person. It could range from volunteer service for a charity organization to a complete change in career.

A Need to Do Something More

Jill is beginning to feel the need to "do something more in two ways. First, she has always admired Donna for the active life she led, such as running her own business and her charity work. Donna's death may be the catalyst that leads Jill to become more active in her own life. Second, a decision by Jill to become more active will help alleviate the restlessness she has been feeling. Instead of not knowing where to go or what to do in response to her restlessness, Jill can take charge of her life and give it a sense of direction and purpose. The need to "do something more" felt by Jill and others is really the flip side of our need for community.

I have discussed elsewhere our need to belong to a community that encourages spiritual growth. [7] However, our need for community goes beyond meeting our own growth needs. We belong to a community not only to meet our needs but also to give to others. Jill is feeling the need to give to others, to see that her life has meaning beyond her own immediate concerns and friends. She may not be at a point where she can clearly articulate that need, but she is well on her way to doing so. Belonging to a community, giving to a community helps us fell connected to something greater than ourselves. To know that what we do will have an effect beyond our immediate circle of acquaintances adds to our sense of happiness.

Life After Death?

And will continue after one's death. How does happiness stand up to the ultimate question, death? Our happiness will be on shaky ground if the effect we have upon the world perishes when we do. If our impact and our happiness are limited to the span of our own lifetime, there is little incentive or hope for seeking happiness in the first place. This brings us to a very crucial characteristic of happiness: We cannot find lasting and complete happiness within our earthly existence. We can find happiness, feel it, experience it in this life, but it will never be quite enough. One author describes this aspect of happiness as "transcending anticipation." [8] While we will find happiness in this life, we will always be less than satisfied and feel that there must be something more. Jill is beginning to see, however vaguely, that she might not find a complete sense of happiness in this world. The questioning occasioned by Donna's death has forced Jill to start thinking about religious questions for the first time in her adult life. Is there a God? Is there life after death? She has also begun to realize that no matter how much she loves Ron, this will not completely satisfy her desire for "something more" in the way of meaning and happiness.

The "something more" that Jill is seeking comes from being part of a Process or Plan. By participating in a Process or Plan that extends beyond our life and death, we can find satisfaction that the efforts we make in this life will continue beyond our own death. This is the only way our transcendent anticipation, the awareness that our happiness in this world is incomplete, will ever be fulfilled. Jill senses that she cannot be happy if a painful and lingering death is all that awaits her at the end of life. Such an end is an insult to the kind of life Donna lived and the kind of person she had been. How could Jill ever be satisfied with that? How could anyone for that matter? Such concerns naturally lead to religious questions about existence and hopefully some religious answers.

All of this leads to the inevitable question of whether or not we continue in some way after death. In relation to happiness, I believe that some kind of afterlife is needed to fulfill the transcending anticipation of happiness. When we feel unfulfilled by earthly experiences of happiness, these glimpses of incomplete happiness are signs of a greater happiness to come. The happiness we now experience in part will be more fully known beyond this life. Whether a life beyond death is characterized by Nirvana or Heaven I must leave as an open question. But our hope of finding happiness in this life rests upon the awareness and experience of a Process or Plan that extends beyond our earthly existence.

Love and Happiness

How does this definition of happiness relate to love? Happiness, as I have defined it, should remove the tremendous pressure of expectations that are placed upon love relationships. So many people look to their love relationships, especially marriage, to give them the happiness they cannot find on their own. Jill is on the verge of seeing this truth as she realizes her relationship with Ron will not fill the emptiness she feels in her life. This realization of Jill's part may very well be the saving grace of her future marriage to Ron. It is sad that so many people do not share Jill's insight, for if love is not enough to provide happiness, then there must be many frustrated lovers in the world. The belief that love guarantees happiness is left over from the ideology of romantic love that tells us we will live happily ever after if we can only find the right person with whom to spend our life. If we realize that love by itself will not bring happiness, the hopefully we will be more tolerant of the imperfections of those we love. If our relationships have their problems, if those we love do not always meet our expectations, we have not lost our only chance for happiness. When we do not expect love to give us the happiness we seek there will be more room for forgiveness of the imperfections and problems that always accompany love. Having more forgiveness and tolerance in our love relationships by not expecting them to make us happy may have the paradoxical effect of producing more happiness: the realization that love is not enough for happiness may very well save many relationships form needlessly breaking up. While love will be a part of our happiness, happiness encompasses far more than our love relationships.

At this point we leave Jill as she continues her journey of discovery. She has made a good beginning in figuring out what does and does not make for happiness. I did not give her the answers, but I helped her to get started. Perhaps my suggestions can help others in their journey as well.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre quoted in The MacIntyre Reader, ed. Kelvin Knight, [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998], 141.

[2] Kenneth L. Woodward, et. al., "A Time to Seek," Newsweek, 17 December 1990, 50

[3] Stephen Strasser, Phenomenology of Feeling: An Essay on the Phenomena of the Heart, [Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1977], 349-350

[4] Strasser, Phenomenology of Feeling, 352.

[5] Wing-Tsit Chan, Lao Tzu, [Indianapolis:Bobbs-Merri Co. , Inc., 1962], 103.

[6] Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, [New York: Harper & Row, 1959], 14.

[7] Craig Owen, The Six Faces of Love, [Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks, 1999], 45-58.

[8] Strasser, Phenomenology of Feeling, 373.

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