At first glance, the book, How and How Not to Be Happy sounds like those innumerable “self-help” tomes that crowd bookstore shelves. However, the mention of how not to be happy intrigues the reader and prompts a second look. It is well worth the effort as this is not one of those repetitive and tiresome promises of future success. Indeed, this book is profound—and yet very readable.
The author, J. Budziszewski, is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the author of a book about natural law, What We Can’t Not Know. My colleague, John Horvat, described the earlier book as “a refreshing oasis in a postmodern desert.” This new book is also an oasis but in a desert of selfishness.
Like any well-organized book, this one defines its major term—happiness. The good professor’s definition is elegantly simple, typical of a scholar who has spent so much time mastering his subject.
“To be happy in the unqualified sense is the same as to be fulfilled, to flourish, or to thrive—to enjoy complete well-being, to have our complete and final good.” Such unqualified happiness has four major components. It must be:
- Abiding rather than fleeting
- Something that we can’t help but long for.
- Sufficient and complete.
- Compatible with the splendor of virtue and impossible without it.
Having described what happiness is, Prof. Budziszewski uses over half of the book to explain a baker’s dozen of sham paths to the goal and why each is false.
The list of thirteen false trails is a compendium of everything that contemporary people think will make them happy while allowing them to avoid God. They are the fruits of the spirit of the world—wealth, health, fame, praise, self-esteem, power, pleasure, painlessness, meaning, love, virtue, luck and possessions.
Space will not allow an explanation of all the arguments against the thirteen items but consider the sampling below.
- Wealth—“We imagine that wealth will shield us from suffering, but that is a crock of lies.”
- Fame—“Happiness is something that endures and is not easily lost. But fame is short-lived… fame is utterly dependent on the crowd.”
- Self-love—“[W]hatever the highest good is, it cannot be me…. I can no more be my own god than I can pull myself up by the hair.”
- Pleasure—“Pursued for its own sake, pleasure ceases to please.”
Simple and Yet Profound
Each sample cited comes from an entire chapter, yet the extreme simplicity of the language has a profound meaning. These well-chosen words come from a writer who has spent enough time with his subjects to describe them succinctly.
In the introduction, Dr. Budziszewski explains that this is his second book on the topic. The first one was a line-by-line explanation of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose that runs to 653 pages. The influence of the man that the Church calls “the Angelic Doctor”—but who called himself the “dumb ox”—shines through the modern and more manageably sized work.
However, the first part relates to the conditions that will not produce happiness and relatively few of those that will. He also says almost nothing about God. Dr. Budziszewski does this to eliminate those items that non-believers think will bring them happiness before explaining that only one real option is a relationship with the Living God.
The Road to Happiness
Thus, the real path to happiness is both elegant and straightforward. The author describes this path with a sequence of arguments.
He explains how each natural—as opposed to disordered—desire is designed to be fulfilled. The Creator does not implant a desire unless He intends to provide the means for its satisfaction. The act of hunting means that the quarry exists. God is not in the business of torturing humanity with senseless desires.
At the same time, humans are not capable of providing for their own happiness. They need God’s Grace to find any path to unqualified happiness. Therefore, human activity alone is insufficient. True happiness comes by freely accepting God’s Grace and directing one’s actions toward that goal. This action of Grace is often hard to understand, but that is no reason to reject it and thus lose the only chance for human happiness.
The professor has one last argument for any non-believers who have made it this far.
“Atheists are fond of saying that belief in God is a crutch, a comfort for weak minds who find life too difficult. But disbelieving in Him can also be a crutch, a comfort for deluded minds who think that they will be freer if they are alienated from the Divine Source of their freedom.”
With all these premises answered, the author presents his central argument about the path to true and complete happiness without seeing God in his reality. However, such a task is beyond the finite human mind. God gives souls this capacity—in a way and to the extent that each individual mind can grasp Him.
This is not the end of the book. More insights are to be discovered. Having explained that God is the source of all happiness, the book’s author describes the relationship between God and those who seek to follow His ways. These last few pages alone would be worth the price of the book.
That discovery, however, is for the individual reader to make and embrace.