For the past two years I have been writing a book on Thomas Aquinas’s theory of happiness and ultimate purpose. One of the topics he considers is whether we can attain happiness just through our own natural powers. Wondering how others might answer, while writing the chapter about it I did a quick web search using the question, “What can we do to be happy?”
The first time I ran the search, the query yielded 627 million hits. Ironically, the first one after the advertisements was a suicide hotline. After that bleak note, the results became buoyantly optimistic: “10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happy,” “45 Things You Can Do to Get Happy No Matter Where You Are,” and the cockiest, “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.”
The happiness gurus who write these items almost never suggest becoming a virtuous person. From a Thomistic point of view, this is worse than an oversight, since what might be called the happiness of this life lies chiefly in the exercise of the virtues. How else can we even enjoy the other good things? For example, how else can we properly practice friendship, delight in our families, and contemplate the objects of knowledge?
A good deal of the advice the gurus do give is either wrong (some of them attribute magical powers to money) or fatuous (my favorite was “Happiness is maximized at 13.9° C”). Some of their advice is not really about the attainment of happiness, but about the banishing of sorrow – a topic St. Thomas treats separately, making practical suggestions like enjoying innocent pleasures (go read a novel of P.G. Wodehouse), sleep, baths, weeping, the sympathy of friends, and fixing the gaze of one’s mind upon Divine truth.
Not all of the “simple things” the gurus suggest are bad ideas. And St. Thomas certainly agrees that to attain what passes for happiness in this life, human powers -- plus a certain amount of good fortune -- suffice.
Of course one might not have good fortune. Besides, even if one does, what is called happiness in this life inevitably leaves us asking “Is this all there is?”
His answer is that the happiness of this life is not all there is. But for supreme and perfect happiness – not just more of the same old happiness, but a higher kind of happiness -- we need Divine help.