Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why Can't I Be Happy?

If you read the sidebar on my blog, you will see the point in my life at which I realized:  “I’m not happy.”  I think everyone feels that way at some point --- but that point DOES pass.  Fortunately for me, I reached my bottom at a point when I felt God calling to me, and I strongly felt that He was the answer to overcoming my sadness.
I perceive that this “God calling” doesn’t happen to most people, but when they come to perceive the depths of their sadness, they feel alone.  If that describes you right now, have faith; there IS hope.
This past week I read not one but two books and each touched upon a definition of happiness that I found helpful.  The definition of “happiness” may seem obvious to you (I thought so too), but as I read these books I realized that I, at one point, had defined my state of un-happiness, but had never really stopped to define what “happiness” meant --- because I thought I knew.  It turns out I didn’t, and I suspect you don’t either.
Think about it for a moment:  how can you want happiness if you really don’t know what it is?  It’s kind of like you saying: “I want some monkey-flavored ice cream.”  “What the heck does that taste like,” you may ask.  I don’t know either --- so how could say you want it?
Raniero Cantalamessa, in his book titled Serving The Word quotes the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said there are three categories of greatness (a measure of success and happiness).  These categories were: 1) material goods, 2) genius and intelligence, and 3) holiness.  The first one can come about through hard work, or athletic prowess, or even good looks.  It also can just be inherited.  The second level of greatness/happiness includes poets, artists, scientists, and even philosophers.  These people are usually not rich-happy in the same manner as the first category, yet most people would say this level of greatness/happiness is more profound.  These people can be remembered through many generations, like Socrates ---- but, for example, how many rich men of the Roman Empire can you name?
Pascal said the third category of greatness/happiness, holiness, is a more noble and satisfying one, than that of the first two, for three reasons:  “First, because it is a greatness that does not end in this life; second, because it is a greatness in the eyes of God who is the measure of any greatness; and third, because it is a greatness that values what is most noble in a human being:  freedom.  It does not depend on whether we are good-looking or ugly, rich or poor, highly intelligent or less so.  Instead what depends on us is being honest or dishonest, being good or bad people.”  Cantalamessa notes that: “the good news about these categories of greatness is that faith in Christ does not obligate us to choose only one of these categories and renounce the others.  A young person can try to earn money and be committed to an artistic or literary career --- even becoming an actor or an actress --- but at the same time aspire to holiness.”
In Robert Spitzer’s book, Finding True Happiness, he defines four levels of happiness:  External-Pleasure-Material, Ego-Comparative, Contributive-Empathetic, and Transcendent.  He makes the case that Pascal’s Holiness category can be split into Love of Neighbor --- contributing to society or particular people, and Love of God --- a relationship with God, a vibrant prayer life.
Spitzer, since his book is focused on happiness, also looks at the problems of focused happiness in some detail.  He notes that the unhappiness often found in youth arises out of concerns over levels one and two, which are often more acutely focused on in early life.  He notes that many young people tend to define their happiness by comparing themselves to others:  who is richer, has nicer clothes, is prettier, is more popular, etc.  When they were very young, they valued what their parents thought of them; when older they valued what others thought of them.  (Only in levels 3 and 4 will they discover the greater importance of what they think of themselves, and of what God thinks of them.)   Even among the very rich or very intelligent, young or old, comparisons to others’ greatness can be a problem, for there is always someone perceived to be better.  Many “winners” in the comparison game become full-blown narcissists, trapped in behaviors designed to get more status from others.
Both Spitzer and Cantalamessa (and Pascal) point to the fact --- they reference studies --- that there is an inner longing in man for transcendence.  We want our life to have a greater meaning than that of just our own fleeting earthly happiness --- witness the suicide rate among rich people, the Hollywood crowd, sports figures, or that latest “pursuing-their-own-happiness” crowd:  those with sex-change operations.  Their pursuit of happiness for themselves can reach deep depressing levels: “I can’t win; I can’t be happy” feelings.  We innately long for more than earthly, temporary things.  I know at one point --- and I remember it well --- I realized I did.
The answer to fulfilling this greater longing, this greater happiness, a really deep happiness, lies (strangely, I know) in not focusing our efforts on OUR happiness, but on the happiness of others.  Holding the hand of a dying person; serving food to a hungry, homeless person, or just playing catch with your son when you have lots of work to do:  these are all examples of holiness --- of caring for others more than yourself.  This level of greatness, of happiness, can’t be bought or analyzed with the greatest of intelligence.  But we can choose it.  And if while in prayer you should suddenly perceive the presence of God and His love for you, this the greatest level of happiness possible --- at least on this earth.
The answer to that question of “Why can’t I be happy?” lies in the foolishness of thinking we can make ourselves happy.  Focusing all of our efforts on ourselves is, in a way, limiting ourselves.  If we broaden our focus beyond ourselves, there is much more happiness to be felt in greater numbers of people --- and in greater Persons:  God.
When I finally decided to stop trying to make myself happy is when I finally began to appreciate happiness more; I found giving happiness to be much more satisfying than pursuing happiness.
I liked that I had read these two books so close to each other, so that I could see their well-expressed definition of happiness, and the levels of happiness --- and how to achieve them.  I think they give me food for discussion with others on this topic, especially with the young who are trapped in levels 1 and 2 of happiness.   


  1. Tom, I'm still dealing with people in their 60's stuck in stages 1 & 2!!! Very irritating. Many are relatives - specifically two sisters in law and the kids my brothers and they raised. They believe my life choices make me a loser, otherwise (according to them) I would have chosen material gains and worldly status, like they did, and since I didn't, (again, according to them) it must be because I couldn't. Me saying it was because I valued something else more is just sour grapes (according to them) (oh, says the fox who can't reach the grapes, I didn't want them anyway---they're probably sour.) and proves I am a loser. No matter what I have done to contribute to society, no matter what my character is, no matter how I succeed in terms of love, to them it's valueless. Those things are easy-peasy. Only losers choose that because they can't win at material gain. According to them.

    The bragging never stops. Neither do the subtle put downs. I do feel sorry for them, but I'm sad to say I avoid them because the few times I have taken on their mean spirited put downs it turned into a terrible row, with me being blamed for the row. Go figure.

    I was more at stage 3 even in my late teens. I saw the absurdity of the material comparison game early. People who I thought were better people - kinder, gentler, more cheerful, like the priests and nuns I met as my teachers and even some relatives who were just plain folks and worked blue collar jobs, seemed to be pretty happy, and it wasn't based on the kind of shoes they wore or the car they drove. And I saw people who were pretty mean showing off and bragging about their new fancy whatever it was and just trying their darnedest to make others feel bad by comparison. I was not impressed.

    Spitzer's book sounds very interesting. I used to like the kinds of books that categorize behavior and try to define it, but I have found in life people are just too complex for simple categories. Even the Myers-Briggs, which seems to be pretty spot on, in some way limits knowing someone by trying to define them. So I like these sorts of things insofar as they add to understanding, but leave off them when they begin to limit the mystery of the other person.

    I wonder, though, how you get to that transcendence stage! :-)

    P.S. One story. My one brother and I had been taking care of my mom and dad (both disabled, my mom paralyzed and wheelchair bound, my dad impaired by a stroke but ambulatory) for about 6 years when Hurricane Katrina happened. Another of my brothers and his wife were caught in it (didn't evacuate) and their home on the Gulf Coast was totally destroyed. They survived with cuts and scratches (hung on at the top of a 30 ft. pine tree after they SWAM to out of the second story of their home, clinging to it for 6 hours during the entire storm.) One of their sons and his family lived in southern Illinois, and so after my brother and wife were rescued safe, they went back to his son's home to stay with him and his family. Now, of course, taking care of and living with your parents is easy-peasy, right?, because the losers of the family were doing it (me and my one brother), so for my nephew, this was going to be a piece of cake, right?

    About three weeks later my brother told us he and his wife were going back to the Gulf Coast and rent a house until they could figure out what to do next. I asked, well, why don't you just stay with your son until you kind of get over the shock of it all? Besides, the infrastructure there is ruined and it will be hard to get things you need, and it will be expensive. Well, he said, we'd just be more comfortable in our own place. We found out later the living situation was driving my nephew and his wife nuts, and things got very uncomfortable for everyone. When I heard that I just kind of smiled to myself. Yeah, love and sacrifice is easy-peasy, right? Only for losers, right? :-)

    God bless. ~ Fran

  2. I laughed at your comments, Fran. I so much understand. What I have found, however, in my participation in a caregiver's group, is that having others not understand --- whether children or siblings -- is a very common thing. Unless you live a while with someone, you really don't know what is required, and how hard it is. Even I, when I visited mom and dad, never saw the gradual deterioration of mom, and how much love dad had to give to take care of her --- until suddenly it was my responsibility. So don't be too hard on your kids or siblings; they really can't understand the love needed in caregiving, nor the labor and its rewards.

    As for levels of happiness, even Spitzer's book notes the large numbers of people trapped in levels one and two. It is a leap of faith to think that you will be happier by making others happy. Many will never understand.