Following is my October column that appears on this month’s book page of the print edition of The Catholic Post.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of happiness—not just being happy, but the science and research (especially through books) into what makes people happy. To paraphrase the country song, I was into happiness books before happiness books were cool.
There’s a mini-industry of books about the science of happiness, and what makes people happier. Researchers have explored this topic extensively, such as Martin Seligman’s Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being and other books on learned optimism and positive psychology, or Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, about many things that work scientifically to improve a person’s happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s best-selling book, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun and other books share in Rubin’s entertaining way, her average person’s ways to practice happiness.
I’ve taken away great resources and ideas from these authors. That’s especially since one of the regular findings of such research is that people who have a robust faith life have a higher contentment level. The connection, routine, and virtues promoted by religious faith promote a happier, healthy psyche. I think that is no surprise since God made us for relationship and for doing the good, and that happiness is a natural and supernatural byproduct of that.
But sometimes I feel uneasy with these books for two reasons: one, a wry guilt that I am not “happier,’ and two, a sense that focusing on happiness alone is not helpful spiritually. Perhaps that’s because the fullest, spiritual meaning of happiness is not fully covered in these books. That is remedied in two new books.
These Catholic authors close the gap between the practical science of what makes people happy, to the religious perspective on what it means to be truly happy, and how living out faith makes a person happy in the best sense of the word.
First, prolific author and Catholic intellectual Fr. Robert Spitzer,S.J., PhD., has written a great new called Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts (Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence). He brings not just a Catholic vision to the field, but a truly philosophical approach to why humans seek happiness, the stages of happiness, and how we can achieve lasting and real happiness at the highest level, rather than just the superficial “now” happiness.”
I thought that Fr. Spitzer’s book would be dry theological or philosophical information, but delving into it reveals that it is truly full of practical advice and good, detailed, information on how to achieve a lasting happiness at a higher level.
There’s so much good in this book about the proper pursuit of true happiness for a sincere Christian; recommendations about prayer; the importance of discerning spirits; Jesuit spirituality.; and so much about true happiness. What I love learning, again and again, is the rich spiritual and intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church, its theologians and saints, that points us towards happiness now and in the future.
A Catholic book more similar to the positive psychology books is The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor.
Kaczor, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount University, writes from a personal and an educational perspective about happiness, and how our faith practice and belief promotes true happiness. He explores the positive psychology movement, the growing body of research that shows certain practices and mindsets contribute to human flourishing, and how faith fits so well into it.
Like Fr. Spitzer, Kaczor, concludes that the happiness and positive psychology research is not at odds with our faith, but rather complements it and helps us understand how our faith works to make us happy
For instance, Kaczor applies the PERMA acronym of positive focus organized by researcher Martin Seligman, to faith practices. PERMA relates to five areas that are most conducive to happiness: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Kaczor shows how each of these is woven into the fabric of a robust faith life, and so contributes to happiness.
The intersection between prayer and positive affect is especially stressed in this book. Kaczor talks about prayer practices that foster happiness, such as Ignatian examen, prayers such as a litany-like prayer called the “loving kindness prayer,” in which a person praying contemplate kindness and goodness towards all in their life meet, and the rhythm of the liturgical year.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Christianity is not just a putting off of happiness for a future goal, but true happiness in this life. We are made for joy and abundance, and these two great new books offer a roadmap for people of faith to increase true happiness in this life and the life to come.