Happiness: the Thoughtful Pursuit of the Good

Entering the New Year can be daunting with various resolutions and a hope that maybe this will be the year we can accomplish all we believe must be accomplished to be happy. Oftentimes the idea of having a “reset” leads many to take on goals and positions that not only set themselves up for failure, but completely miss what is at the root of human flourishing. I’m not saying that the typical New Year’s resolutions aren’t necessarily good, of course it’s good to get healthy, active, more thoughtful with our actions, etc. But I think before we are quick to assign ourselves goals of this nature, we must reflect on why we want to accomplish those things. We want to be happy and we want to flourish. But in this day and age it is arguable whether most actually understand what that is.

In his book Finding Happiness in a Complex World, Dr. Charles Nemeth seeks to illustrate a better understanding of happiness with the help of two of the greatest Western thinkers, Aristotle and Aquinas. Nemeth writes that “this short text is a “Recipe for Life,” or “Rules for a Happy Life,” fully grounded and dependent upon Aristotle and Aquinas. It is a mix and formula for human happiness that may be meaningful to those in search of a more tranquil state.”

This book provides not only an accurate exposition of Aquinas and Aristotle’s philosophies on happiness, but it provides a realistic approach to attaining the complex ideas discussed in their philosophies. Nemeth writes that “this recipe and these rules deliver the type of peace and tranquility only possible with a clear understanding of the world around us, the place we fit into the overall scheme of things, and the day-to-day steps and questions needed to be taken and posed to achieve a happy life.” Beginning with an introduction to Aristotle and Aquinas, and their relevance to the Modern World, Nemeth then provides an understanding of happiness in Chapter 2. From there he
frames his text around exploring the different aspects of life that seem to hold some element of happiness in them. These things include material possessions, wealth, power, honor, family, religion, and ultimately Nemeth provides a “recipe” for living a truly happy life of “eudaimonia.”

As a college student, it can be very easy to get distracted by things that give us temporary happiness. Whether it’s prioritizing a night out with friends, ordering dinner instead of cooking a good meal myself, or giving in to other desires that provide only momentary gratification, it’s all so easy to fall victim to. It’s especially easy to get bogged down by the lack of things that “should” make us happy. Every month when rent or a tuition payment is due, when I have to fill up my car with gas, or go buy groceries, a little part of me wishes I could finally find that money tree everyone dreams of. But even that desire is a distraction from what really lies at the core of happiness. So how can we all let go of our preconceived notions of happiness and get to its real essence?

Nemeth writes that “Any formula for a happy life and internal happiness must start at the very beginning—discerning the goal of happiness by defining it as a state of being.” What follows is a wonderful and insightful exploration of the parameters, limitations, qualities, and various opinions on what it means to be in the state of happiness. Coming to understand whether human happiness has limits or boundaries is vital to understanding how to attain it, especially in a time that is plagued by constant cultural, political, moral, and social chaos. Nemeth writes that “from the very outset it is crucial to understand limitations of human happiness, for it cannot be constant, untouched, or unmoved, nor can it be a perpetual feeling or state of being. Instead, happiness modulates, increases,
decreases, and even disappears in human activity.” A common misconception is that a happy life is one without suffering, the antithesis of happiness. However, any reader of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov would recognize a great truth in Nemeth’s words: a happy life is not static, but dynamic and even includes moments where “joy” or “pleasure” are not felt, and their counterparts abound.

Nemeth writes that “No matter how you look at happiness in the long run, it is wise to keep its power and potential in a reasonable framework. Doing so assures a happier life where priorities make a bit more sense than those always craving the heights of exhilaration and joy.” Furthermore, it is not by looking to the pleasures of earth that man will find the extent of happiness, but in “looking to a higher order, to a divine realm where our Creator fashioned us as beings, will be the only true resting place in the matter of happiness.” In the conclusion of his chapter defining happiness, Nemeth argues that the happy life “consists of and encompasses every activity that can be described as virtuous, for happiness goes hand in hand with virtue while its opposite,vice, leads to another distressful and distraught destiny. The connection of virtue, in all its forms and categories, to the notion of happiness, is clearly one of the greatest contributions of Aristotle and Aquinas.”

So what are we to do once we understand that true happiness is far more than the fleeting moments of joy and pleasure, the material possessions we often value above all else, and the purposeless pursuit of the world’s understanding of happiness? Ultimately, happiness is a state of peace, one only found in the journey to beatific union with Him who created us and Him who is happiness itself. But as Nemeth notes, this can be hard to grasp and even harder to reconcile with the daily hardships experienced in life. The remainder of the book provides great insight into a fruitful application of Aquinas and Aristotle’s philosophies of happiness. Chapters 3-7 develop the relationship between wealth, possessions, power, the body, pleasure, relationships, and religion with true happiness.

By understanding the correlation and relation between happiness and these earthly goods, Nemeth provides the foundation for what he calls the “Recipe for a Happy Life,” a list of rules and insights as to the proper approach of happiness in a world set against it. As we enter into this new year, it is important to do so with a mindful and thoughtful pursuit of the good. Perhaps if we took more time to understand where our happiness lies, even in a complex world like the one we live in, our goals could be more easily attainable and better ordered to our ultimate good. Even if your New Year’s resolutions seem like they may have no relation to our teleological end, our ultimate happiness in God, reflecting on them can reveal something much greater. Finding Happiness in a Complex World is a wonderful read for anyone who wants to embark on this new year with a fresh perspective on life, goals, and the habits and orientation that can lead to one’s happiness.

Finding Happiness in a Complex World is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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Sammy Tieman is a senior at the University of Dallas, majoring in English and Theology. Having a background in classical education from her time at Founders Classical Academy, Sammy studied the great thinkers and theologians of Western civilization, and eventually converted to Catholicism at the age of 17. With a passion for her faith and a love of great books, Sammy hopes to continue writing as a career after graduating in 2023.

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