Ask someone where happiness may be found, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Many of them, however, are centered on attaining something currently out-of-reach. The thinking goes like this: “If only I could make more money, then I would be happy.” Or “If only I had a nice car, then I would be happy.” Or “If only I could win that tennis tournament trophy, then I would be happy.”
The problem is, there are people all around who have plenty of money, a nice car and maybe even an entire collection of tennis trophies, yet they are not happy. Material goods don’t bring happiness, and in fact, the more earnestly such goods are sought as if they would bring happiness, the more bitter the disappointment that follows.
Many years ago, Venerable Fulton Sheen wrote: “Every earthly ideal is lost by being possessed.” After someone attains the object he was searching for, he no longer places happiness in it. He realizes that his unhappiness was not due to his lack of that material item. He got what he had wanted, and, despite a possible temporary kick, the general unhappiness remained.
Instead of deriving satisfaction from what we’ve achieved, we use our achievements as baselines from which to achieve more. Those making $30,000 per year want to make $40,000; those making $40,000 want to make $50,000, and those making $50,000 want to make $60,000. As the material rewards increase, the search for happiness does not abate, and it can in fact intensify.
If happiness cannot be found in material possessions, where can it be found? The answer is: we find happiness where we least expect it—in self-denial. This is not a piece of wisdom that is easily learned and lived, because it is so paradoxical. Who, without being told, would ever imagine that denying oneself would bring happiness?
Yet, we are told by Jesus Himself in Matthew 16:24 that “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it; and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” Self-seeking ends in destruction of self, while self-denial (and seeking of God) culminates in happiness.
Self-denial being the route to happiness is possible, because, as Sheen points out, denial of self prepares us for disappointments from others: “Contradictions from others will hurt us less when we have first contradicted ourselves. The hand that is calloused will not pain as much as a soft hand, on catching a hard ball. Contradictions can even be assimilated and used for further taming of our own errant impulses.”
Yes, even the disappointments of life can be used for out greater good, if we take them in the right way. What happens outside of us is not nearly as important as what happens inside of us, and the latter is oftentimes the only thing we have control over. Good can come even from the worst situations, by a mere act of the will.
Sheen reminded us of the great important of the will. He said, “There is one thing in the world that is definitely and absolutely your own, and that is you will. Health, power, life, and honor can all be snatched from you, but your will is irrevocably your own, even in Hell. Hence, nothing really matters in life, except what you do with your will.”
Happiness, then, is found by making decisions (acts of the will) to contradict our own errant impulses. When our own wills have been negated, we can live out the will of God here on earth and for eternity in Heaven. Complete happiness can only be attained after this life, but true happiness does start here by saying no to oneself.
Because I wanted to share this great paradox with others, I chose passages from Venerable Sheen found in the new book Finding True Happiness. Sheen’s prescription for happiness is just as relevant to us today as it was decades ago when he first wrote it. In fact, it is even more imperative to get his message out now, because even fewer people know of its value. Finding happiness in self-denial and God-acceptance is a reality we all need to be taught or reminded of.