The Declaration of Independence enshrined the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. By this right, we think we may freely live the life that makes us happy, as long as it is not illegal or violates the rights of others.
Many have the illusion that we can achieve perfect happiness on earth. They also think the government guarantees us the right to perfect happiness. They look to technology that provides us with increasing amenities and pleasures. Our culture entertains us and makes us feel good. We should be happy. And yet, people are not.
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Happy People Don’t Commit Suicide
Indeed, suicides are increasing at an alarming rate across the country. Over half of those who committed suicide had no known mental health condition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates in the U.S. increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34. This has contributed to the drop in life expectancy in America for two years in a row, something unheard of in a First World country.
Generally, many factors contribute to suicide in a country. No single factor can be identified as the cause. However, there is one common theme, which is unhappiness. Whether triggered by mental health problems, failing relationships, poor physical health, loss of employment, finances or substance abuse, those who commit suicide are not happy.
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Looking in the Wrong Places
Perhaps the reason why people are unhappy is they are looking for it in the wrong places.
The modern world proposes the wrong metrics of happiness. Ours cannot be a tabloid happiness based on the lifestyles of jet-set celebrities. Happiness cannot be measured by our enjoyment of popular culture, social media, and Hollywood since they often put us in the position of living the lives of others vicariously.
Another erroneous way of gauging happiness is the satisfaction we get by comparing ourselves to others. Making these comparisons regarding wealth, appearance, prestige or other qualities is a huge mistake. Each person is an individual with unique needs. Nothing can be gained by comparing our personal achievements or deficiencies with those of others.
Contrary to popular belief, wealth does not always give happiness. Having wealth to buy things shows that the objects bought with wealth are more desirable than the wealth itself. Anyone with wealth will always face the challenge of others who will have more.
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Pleasure also does not give happiness since it depends upon our finite senses, and what they give us is neither absolute nor eternal. The same conclusion can be applied to prestige and security since they are all temporary and fleeting. Temporal happiness cannot fulfill us because our appetites long for and can only be fully satisfied by the absolute and eternal.
Perfect and Imperfect Happiness
Not only are people looking in the wrong place but they are not happy because they do not understand the nature of happiness. They think all happiness must be perfect happiness. This logic leads to the conclusion that pursuing happiness in the wrong way results in frustration and unhappiness. So the question is, what is perfect happiness and how do we achieve it?
In the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas of Aquinas explains that there are two types of happiness, perfect and imperfect. The perfect happiness is the beatific vision, the vision of God, which does not depend upon the body. Perfect happiness alone suffices; nothing else is desired.
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Imperfect happiness is obtained in this life by growing in our knowledge of God through the operation of our intellect. We work toward perfect happiness by regulating all our actions to attain individual perfection. Since happiness is our supreme good, it excludes everything that is sinful and presupposes the hard life of virtue.
Only God can provide perfect happiness. We can only enjoy imperfect happiness during our journey on this earth. This can be achieved if we seek God, His grace and contemplate the reflection of God in creation. Anything other than this is a disorder that results in frustration and unhappiness.
In this sense, happiness consists of order. Order is that state of things where everything functions according to its nature and end. When everything is doing what it is supposed to be doing there is order, “Nature is the cause of order, whatever does not possess order is not according to nature.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, In Physic., lib. 8, lect. 3, n. 3)
The chaos of the modern world only frustrates our longing for the order that God created. So what is that order? It is the glory of God. Wherever God is glorified, everything is orderly. An order in which God is not glorified is fraudulent and useless.
The conclusion is simple; a sinful life is a disorderly life, and ultimately, an unhappy life. How many frustrations, sufferings, and suicides could be prevented if souls would lead an orderly, virtuous life? The life God desired for us when we were created is the only truly happy life.