Pursuing True Happiness in a World Without Truth

“[T]he direct and pure experience of reality in its ultimate root is man’s deepest need.”
∼ Thomas Merton

Among the many confusions in our modern-secular culture is the fundamentally incoherent idea—which is also a promise, a hope, and a dream—that true happiness is possible without truth, but instead can be had with more freedom and more power. What the evidence shows—not that evidence carries much weight with the ideologues of secular humanism—is that more freedom and power has not and does not result in true happiness, but instead only in various kinds of pseudo-happiness, none of which can satisfy our desire for the real thing, and all of which serve in the end only to deepen our misery, appearances to the contrary.

Against this secular-modern understanding of happiness we can and should turn to our faith, not to mention common sense, to affirm that true happiness is impossible without truth. For St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, happiness is the joy produced in us by truth. To be truly happy means coming to know how things really are, experiencing “…reality in its ultimate root…” as Thomas Merton puts it, joy being the natural consequence of this experience. Understood in this way, it is possible to see how the secular-modern idea of pursuing happiness is fundamentally mistaken. Happiness is not something that can be pursued, but can only be received, with gratitude, as we receive a gift, which in fact it is. So understood, we are the creatures drawn to the light of truth, and it is only in this light that we rejoice and so are made happy. Anything less is not true happiness, whatever else it might be, or whatever else in our confusion we try to call it.

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To suggest that truth is the only source of true happiness is of course exactly contrary to the skepticism and relativism of our age, a world increasingly founded on the denial of any truth or order not our own. This is a world that promises, falsely, that we can make ourselves truly happy. Under this “dictatorship of relativism” as Benedict XVI called it, everyone is understood to have a right to “his own truth,” and so “his own happiness.” This is dangerous nonsense that encourages us into Sisyfussian lives of futile searching, lives laced with sadness and disappointment no matter how successful, or into disordered, destructive, and miserable lives people then declare themselves “happy” to be living. No one should take such claims at face value, yet there is today an entire field of happiness “research” that does, an industry that functions primarily to enable the lie that happiness is whatever we say it is and that people are happy simply because they say they are.

In a world in which truth is denied, and in which the pursuit of happiness therefore devolves into getting whatever we decide in our freedom to pursue, unhappiness is understood to follow from the inability to get what we want. Thus, unhappiness is thought to arise from a lack of freedom and power, things which, unlike true happiness, can be successfully pursued, either by individuals or on behalf of those who lack freedom and power relative to others. The latter is, of course, the rationale behind modern egalitarian political movements, all of which promise, at least implicitly, that freedom and equality will bring happiness.  Unfortunately, while freedom can be expanded, and power can be had, or redistributed, neither freedom nor power alone can bring true happiness. And so the promise of these movements turns out to be a false promise, a lesson that the newly freed and empowered often have to learn the hard way. What matters more to one’s happiness than getting more freedom and power is the end toward which we order whatever freedom and power we have. Unless we order ourselves to the truth, more freedom and more power will bring only more unhappiness, examples of which abound.

The point of developing this critique of the modern pursuit of happiness is to order in our minds the disorder we see in the world around us. And there is plenty of disorder to see, some obvious and some less so. We can see quite clearly that many people are befuddled and confused and by any measure deeply unhappy. Depression is pervasive; suicide all too common, and particularly among the young; alcohol and drug use and abuse is normal; millions live in chronic spiritual, psychological, and physical pain hoping for relief, to “feel good,” if only until the next morning. Many, out of their pain and suffering, and sin, hurt themselves and others through violence, abuse and neglect.

Others, having been sold on the idea that happiness was to be found in the freedom to do and get what one wants discover that freedom has not freed them but only further enslaved them, while others discover for themselves the truth of the cliché that money can’t buy happiness. Indeed, we are reminded of this truth almost daily, in the misfortune that often follows lottery winners; the troubled and disordered lives of the sons and daughters of the privileged; and in the sad lives of those rich sports stars and Hollywood celebrities who alternate heroic days on the field and glamorous nights on the red carpet with weeks in rehab and years in prison. Still sadder is the realization that millions obsessively follow the lives of these celebrities on TV and on-line, wishing only for the chance to join them.

Some of the evidence, however, is less obvious and so requires careful analysis and interpretation. For example, it is only against a standard of true happiness that we can come to see that what many people claim is happiness isn’t. Many of those who have the freedom and power to get what they want declare themselves to be happy though upon closer inspection we find not the joyfulness of true happiness, but instead only comfort, accomplishment, excitement, pleasure, leisure, status, and style, all of which are possible to possess and experience joylessly; all of which can be infused with a perplexing disappointment; all of which can be and often are haunted with the sense that something is missing. Many such people have it all only discover that all isn’t enough. Alas, such people are right.

Such lives are not truly happy whatever pleasures or entertainments they provide those who live them. Of course, one consequence of the age is that since everyone is believed to have a right to call him or herself happy we bristle at the idea that anyone might challenge that claim, that anyone might suggest that they too have a stake in the matter, and that our claim to be happy just might be wrong. To challenge someone’s claim to be happy is offensive since it would suggest that there is a right or wrong or a true or a false that is independent of what anyone happens to think or claim. It would be to suggest that there is an order to things that we did not ourselves establish. Such a claim is considered rude because it refuses to accept the central conceit of our age, which is that we are gods with the power to declare wrong to be right and evil to be good, and to then live happily ever after however we have chosen to live.

The mistaken notion that the path to happiness lies in expanding or equalizing our freedom and power leads to futile, frustrating, and in many cases quite dangerous choices and lives. To get to the bottom of this disorder we have to look beyond politics and social arrangements, and even beyond the psyche, because the source of the problem is spiritual—it has to do with whether we accept or reject our place in Creation—a Creation that we did not, it must be pointed out, create. We end up with our disordered pursuit of happiness because our lives are based on a spiritual choice that permits no other.

Our self-defeating pursuit of happiness is based on the lie at the core of the modern age, which is that man is autonomous and self-sufficient, capable of solving any real or imagined problems with man-made solutions, primarily technology and politics. This belief is rooted ultimately in arrogance, in the sin of pride—in the rejection of all order outside ourselves that we do not establish—a belief that implies we know ourselves better than does God, our Creator. Much of the energy of the modern world is devoted to proving, against reality, that this lie is true. Individual and collective lives built on this lie, lived in opposition to the given order of things, will not be truly happy or end happily, all protests and appearances to the contrary, but instead will only pile disorder upon disorder and trouble upon trouble. In this way modern history and modern life amounts to an on-going train wreck. And even at this late date, with the wreckage piled high, modernity’s ideologues and apologists would have us continue to believe that we can save ourselves from ourselves by ourselves, that we are autonomous and self-sufficient. That many continue to believe this fairy tale makes thoughtful religious faith look like hard-headed rationalism.

Modern life is, indeed, absurd and futile. We do live like Sisyphus, not because we have to as the Existentialists maintained, but only because we have chosen to. Moreover, we no longer can imagine Sisyphus happy, despite Camus’ recommendation. Even when he claims to be happy we don’t, and shouldn’t, believe him. He is instead, despite the sweat and the smile, disappointed and sad, just as he has chosen to be. To be well-adjusted to the modern world is to learn how to live with this disappointment and sadness—with the inevitable consequences of deciding that we are all there is and that we can, with still more freedom and more power, make ourselves happy.

If one wants true happiness—and I maintain with Aristotle and many others that we cannot not want it—the only way to satisfy that desire is to accept, with gratitude (rather than with resentment, or rage, or rebellion), our place in the order of things, an order which we did not establish and that we are not at freedom to refuse without dire consequences for ourselves and those with whom we share the world. As St. Augustine famously wrote “You made us for yourself oh Lord and we are restless until we rest in thee.” The ideology that claims we can rest in peace if only we have more freedom and more power is wrong. The evidence, if looked at without the self-serving distortion that equates more freedom and more power with “progress,” lines up strongly against this ideology. It has and will fail to deliver on its promises. Our only hope—as individuals and as a civilization—is to turn away from it and toward the truth.

Editor’s note: The image above of Sisyphus was painted by Antonio Zanchi in 1660-65.


  • Clifford Staples

    Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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