Happiness and Virtue

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks tells us that wealth is not the key to happiness. Instead, the number one factor in human happiness is interpersonal relationships. A happy marriage, time spent with colleagues and friends, neighbors you can trust—all of these lead to happiness and personal fulfillment.

Brooks uses common sense and cites plenty of research to make his case. He points out that the activities most associated with happiness are “sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others.” And I can see many of you nodding your head in agreement that “the daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.”

Citing one study, Brooks writes that “joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income.” And yet another study shows that being married gives you “a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.”

Brooks argues that government should take note. Instead of focusing on producing prosperity, maybe, just maybe, government should consider pursuing policies that create well being.

Well, if he means family-friendly policies, for example, that’s good—I agree. So far so good.

Now, Brooks usually hits the nail on the head. He gets it. But not this time.

As I read the piece, I kept waiting for Brooks to define “happiness.” He never does. Because he, like most Americans, has a misconception of what the definition of happiness truly is.

Ask most people what happiness means, and they will talk about feeling good, or about things that give them pleasure. This is especially unfortunate here in America, since “happiness” is an essential concept in our nation’s founding. We all know the famous words of the Declaration of Independence: that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among these the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Well, this does not mean that humans are endowed with the right to feel good, or to act in a way that pleases them. Robbing a bank may make thieves feel happy, but to claim the right to pursue that line of work would be absurd. Happiness is not self-gratification.

So what, then, does happiness mean? Our founding fathers understood the pursuit of happiness to mean the pursuit of a virtuous life. This concept of happiness comes from the Greek word eudaimonia—which refers to a life well-lived, a life rooted in truth. That is what happiness means, and that is what every man and woman has an inalienable right to pursue—a virtuous life.

And as I wrote in my book The Good Life, this is the definition of happiness that we need to reclaim in American life—especially within the Church. After all, a Barna survey revealed that more than half of evangelicals agreed with the statement: “The purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment.”

Come on. If the last 50 years have taught us anything, it’s that consumerism and hedonism (the pursuit of unbridled pleasure) do not lead to happiness, but instead to personal and societal misery.

So I welcome David Brooks’ insights. I just wish he’d gotten happiness right. The goal is not pleasure; it is righteous living, decency, honor, doing good—in short, living a virtuous life.

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