Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Does God Want You to be Happy?

July 5th, 2023 | 12 min read

By Alex Fogleman

Happiness is big business today. Governments don’t just measure GDP; they measure GNH—Gross National Happiness. Businesses don’t just need a CEO; they need a CHO—a Chief Happiness Officer. Neuroscientists can strap tubes on your head to measure neurons in your brain that say where you fall on a scale between “miserable” and “ecstatic.” Matthieu Ricard, biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk, measured off the charts in one such study and has enjoyed the title “happiest man in the world” ever since.

Happiness, then, isn’t just the stuff of philosophers anymore. Psychologists and neuroscientists are teaming up with bureaucrats and businesses and investing billions of dollars to crack the happiness code. The optimist would say: We can be happy, we just need to find the right technique—the right organic food diet, the right job, the right mindfulness practice. The pessimist says: It’s all a sham. Don’t be a sucker. “Mankind does not strive for happiness,” Nietzsche once said, “only the Englishman does.”

How, then, should we think about happiness? Should we be skeptical of the business and politics of happiness? Should we run out ahead of the pack, proclaiming the gospel of happiness in Jesus Christ? What is specifically Christian about happiness?

Eventually, with a bit of help from St. Augustine, I’ll get around to saying that God doesn’t just want you to be happy; he wants you to be supremely happy—immeasurably happy. And God is, in fact, the only way you can be happy. But, of course, this an exercise in begging the question. What are we talking about when we talk about happiness?

Happiness in History

Happiness has a fascinating history. The English word comes from the Old Norse word hap, which means chance, luck, fortune, or fate. We still find it in words like perhaps, happenstance, haphazard. The hapless man has a series of unfortunate things that just happen to him. All of these words, in one way or another, have to do with luck or fortune. They’re not in our control—they just … happen.

The link between happiness and fate has ancient roots. In classical Greek philosophy, one of the leading terms for what we call happiness or flourishing is the Greek word eudaimonia. This would become Aristotle’s favorite term for happiness. But the word itself literally means “good spirit” or “good god”—eu + daemon. A daemon, in the ancient world, isn’t the medieval Christian “demon.” It can be a good or bad spirit, a kind of divine power or fate—a kind of lower-level god who attends to individuals. Plato writes of Socrates’s “daimonion” that served as something like a conscious. In the Symposium, Diotima teaches that love is not a god but a “great daemon.”

Before Plato and Aristotle, eudaimonia had a kind of fickleness to it. You don’t know what the gods are up to, and you don’t know if the good things you have now might be taken away. But with Aristotle, eudaimonia is detached from this haphazard quality. Aristotle untethers eudaimonia from fate and locates it instead in human virtue or excellence—aretē. Eudaimonia, he says, comes through “doing well and living well”; it is “virtuous activity in accordance with reason.”

For Aristotle, eudaimonia still entails a modicum of things beyond our control—a certain amount of money, health, friends, etc. The Stoics took this principle further: The kind of virtue that leads to eudaimonia is wholly within one’s own virtue, which depended on the right use of reason. For the Stoic sage, as Cicero put it, “Happiness … will not tremble, however much it is tortured.” Virtue is shed completely of the fickle fate of fortune.

In all this, happiness has to answer two questions: How is it related to divine agency? And how is it related to human agency? What depends on me and what is out of my hands?

Happiness in the Bible

The Bible actually has a lot to say about happiness. The Hebrew term shalom means not just peace but also wholeness, completeness, or welfare. The word asher names a state of happiness or blessedness. Psalm 1 begins, “Asher is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly … but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,” and goes on to describe this person in terms that can only be described as flourishing: a tree planted by streams of water constantly bearing fruit. That’s asher.

In the Greek New Testament, asher is translated makarios, which becomes the most common term to talk about happiness (typically translated as “blessed”). Makarios is closely related to eudaimonia—a way to name a total state of thriving, happiness, and bliss. Interestingly, some scholars think that makarios tends to be used more to describe divine happiness, while eudaimonia refers to human wellbeing.

We see examples in the Bible of the word makarios applied to God and eternal life in several places: Paul writes about the gospel of the makarios God (1 Tim. 1:11), who is the makarios and only sovereign King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Tim. 6:15). In Titus, we read of the “makarios hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our savior Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13). St. John on Patmos writes on Patmos: “Makarios are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb” (Rev. 9:19).

Most significantly, however, Jesus uses precisely this word to inaugurate the Sermon on the Mount: Makarios are the poor in spirit, makarios are those who hunger and thirst, makarios are those who suffer reproach for Christ’s sake. This is remarkable not only for its application to human blessedness but also because of its highly counter-intuitive characteristics: These are the ones who share in God’s happiness?

We arrive, then, at a familiar issue: What is divine and what is human about happiness? Is it up to us or to God? We also have the introduction of new challenges: What is the role of suffering in happiness? And if happiness is only found with God in the hereafter, what is it that we call happiness in this life?

St. Augustine on Happiness

St. Augustine is, I think, one of the most interesting people to think with about happiness. The topic of happiness appears throughout his writing. It’s the subject of one of his earliest writings, On the Happy Life (De Beata Vita). And it resurfaces in all the great texts like Confessions, On the Trinity, and City of God.

Augustine is especially helpful for bridging the connection between the ancient and modern world—and, with that, between human and divine happiness. Is it from God or is it in our control? Is it about feeling well or being well?

He is also interesting because—in ways quite unpopular today—he makes a full-throated case for why true happiness is only attainable in the hereafter, in eternal life with God. As he puts it in Book 19 of the City of God, “perfect and eternal peace” is not of a kind that one passes into and out of it through the cycles of birth and death. It is only perfectly attainable in the life to come. This does not mean, though, that life in the present world is devoid of happiness. For those who live in the present live with reference to that other world, they “may well be called even now blessed, though not in reality so much as in hope.”

We all want happiness—but we want it now. This kind of expectation, though, actually forestalls what we might call the true happiness project. If we constantly look for it now, we’ll not just miss out on the real thing, we’ll also be shorted legitimate through penultimate happiness now.

Augustine, in other words, doesn’t just want us to be happy momentarily. He wants us to be truly happy, really happy, and he’s going to be fairly rigorous about not settling for anything less than humanity’s highest possible attainment. But to see how he gets there, we have to step back and trace some of his logic, which is especially on display in some of his earlier writings. These texts provide a foundation of thinking theologically about happiness that we would do well to reconsider today. So, picture with me, if you can, St. Augustine on seven steps to a happy life.

1. Everyone Wants to Be Happy

Augustine starts where most philosophers in the ancient world started: Everyone wants to be happy. Human beings—peculiar among the animal species—seek not only survival but happiness. We don’t just labor for food or shelter but for bliss, well-being, and flourishing. This is true for the grimmest and grumpiest of us: We operate this way because we think doing so will make us ultimately happier.

So everyone seeks happiness. The problem is: we don’t agree on (a) what it is, or  (b) how to get it. So how can we begin to parse out true and false happiness? What is the kind of happiness that is really happy versus the kind that is fleeting or temporal, here today and gone tomorrow?

2. True Happiness is Possessing What You Want

For Augustine—again, like other philosophers—happiness entails having what you want. If you don’t actually have the thing you want, you’re not really happy. Conversely, if you have something good but you don’t actually want it, that’s not happiness either. Happiness entails both wanting something and having it.

3. True Happiness is Wanting Something Good

But here’s where things get interesting. True happiness isn’t just having what you want. We all know people who have the thing they want—the yacht, the job, the whatever—but having it doesn’t make them happy. True happiness must mean, then, wanting something good. And by good, Augustine means something eternal, indestructible—something that endures, something permanent. Here we come to the old issue of fate and luck: We have to want something that can’t be taken away.

This is why, for Augustine, true happiness cannot be found in anything created—anything, that is, that’s not eternal. Anything created can be taken away. Like Job, material goods—family, wealth, livelihoods—can disappear in a moment. Created things, by definition, are fleeting and fragile. And even if they never are taken away, the knowledge that they could be lost always brings a touch of fear. We can never rest secure in temporal goods because we can never escape the knowledge that they could be lost. And if our experience is tinged with fear, we can’t call this true happiness. We have to want something that not only will not but cannot be lost.

4. Only God Is Eternal

So, if happiness is possessing what we want and wanting something eternal—without fear of losing it—what should we want? If possessing something eternal is true happiness then—by definition—only God can make us happy, because only God is eternal. Note that this isn’t a moral or religious argument. It’s a grammatical one. When classical philosophers say “God,” they mean that which is eternal, permanent, and unchanging, in contrast with what is finite, subject to death, decay, or destruction. Only the highest good—that than which nothing greater can be thought—is the kind of good that cannot be taken away. Only God is eternal.

5. Only the Wise Person Has God

So, then, if that’s the case, the next question is: Who “has” God? For Augustine, the person who “has God” is the person who lacks nothing. For if one has God, what could be lacking? The person who has God then has what Augustine calls “fullness,” or plenitude. And this is, furthermore, tantamount to wisdom. Wisdom is, in Augustine’s mind, equivalent to fullness, for if we lack something—if we’re missing anything at all—we are not in the possession of wisdom. As he writes in On the Happy Life, “To be happy is nothing else but not to be in need, that is, to be wise.” The one who possesses God, then, is the person who is wise, and this is the person who is truly happy: They possess being in way that nothing at all is lacking.

6. Christ is the Wisdom of God

So, now Augustine has helped us link wisdom with happiness. But how do we—benighted human creatures that we are—actually find wisdom? Here, Augustine turns to a more clearly theological account of happiness. Jesus Christ, as St. Paul makes clear, is the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). He is the only one who is truly wise—who exhibits the fullness of plenitude. Christ, the Wisdom of God, is co-eternal with the Father, and so is himself true wisdom, true happiness.

7. We Are United with Wisdom through Love

If Christ is the true wisdom of God, how do human beings “have” God? The short answer is that we share in Christ’s wisdom and happiness by imitating the incarnate Christ—the Way as well as the End of wisdom—through the love poured into our heart by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Through the outpouring of the Spirit, we are cleansed of the emptiness of folly and given a love for God (rather than for ourselves or other created things). The Spirit exhorts us to seek God, to drive far from us all wrong desires, and thirst for him who “flows out to us from the very Font of Truth.”

True Happiness, Then and Now

Augustine has thus made several advances upon the classical conception of happiness. First, he recognizes that true happiness is neither purely external nor purely internal. It is a gift from something—Someone—beyond us. It is not simply the result of virtue acting in accordance with right reason, irrespective of external forces. It is something we reach only in God, by becoming like God. As he puts it in another early text, On the Catholic Way of Life:

The pursuit of God, therefore, is the desire for happiness, but the attainment of God is happiness itself. We pursue him by loving, while we attain him not when we become exactly what he is but when we become very close to him, touching him in a marvelous and intelligible way, and are enlightened and seized by his truth and holiness.

At the same time, he shares the view that the pursuit of virtue, or wisdom, is necessary for happiness. But for Augustine, virtue is not just human excellence but love. Augustine makes love central to his account of happiness, for only in loving God truly and loving created things with reference to God—“enjoying” God and “using” creatures, as we will famously argue in On Christian Doctrine—do we become happy.

Second, Augustine restores the Creator-creation distinction to an account of happiness. We do not rid ourselves of the fickleness of happiness by transcending human nature but by inhabiting human life as creatures—as those who receive life as a gift. The further we wander from God, the further we go into the fields of folly. This is, importantly, a journey of the heart. We wander to lower things “not by place but by love and desire.” And that’s also the way we return. The soul “returns to God â€¦ by the love by which it desires not to make itself equal to God but to make itself subject to him. The more earnestly and zealously it does this, the happier and loftier it will be, and it will be most free when God alone is its lord. Hence, it should know that it is a creature.” We become happy by loving God, which is to say: by becoming creatures.

If true happiness is having something that cannot be lost, this experience is only possible in the blessed hereafter, in the enjoyment of the triune God. If we’re talking about true happiness—real and lasting happiness—Augustine will not let us settle for anything less a happiness cleansed of every element of chance or luck, purified from every taint of fear.

But unlike other visions of happiness in ancient philosophy, this is not a self-made human project. Christians may share the same goal with Aristotle and the Stoics about virtue as leading to happiness, but for Augustine, the way to virtue is the downward path of humble, Christlike love. It is the reception of a gift—the gift of the Holy Spirit that sheds love into our heart—that provides the way to true virtue and enduring happiness.

This doesn’t mean we cannot experience any degree of happiness now. It’s not that we don’t genuinely experience joy, peace, and blessing in this life—through family, friends, or other meaningful activities. But we would be hard pressed to say that this is true, real happiness—the kind in which nothing is missing or lacking. The joy we experience in these things is the true happiness of the eternal Christ that we enjoy now in hope. These things offer a true but limited measure of happiness—attended by both positive affections, like love and gratitude, though which are always touched with fear. There is, though, a kind of happiness that knows no fear. That is wholly removed from the dread of loss. There is a happiness that knows no bounds, no measure, no limit. That is the happiness of the makarios God.

This is what it means, then, to say that God wants you to be supremely, immeasurably happy. It’s a kind of happiness that can’t be lost, that’s not subject to the whims of chance or fortune. Happiness doesn’t just “happen.” It’s a gift from the God who gives his own love to his creatures. God offers us a happiness that can’t be taken away, that can’t be lost. He gives a happiness beyond measure.

This article was adapted from a talk originally given for the Brazos Fellows Tipsy Orthodoxy series. My thanks to Paul Gutacker for the kind invitation to present there.

Alex Fogleman

Alex Fogleman (PhD, Baylor University) is Assistant Research Professor of Theology at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, where he also serves as the Project Manager for the Global Flourishing Study. He is the author of the Knowledge, Faith, and Early Christian Initiation (Cambridge University Press, 2023) and the founding director of the Catechesis Institute in Waco, TX.