One unforeseen consequence of the COVID crisis is the proliferation of depression. I discovered just how widespread this is when speaking with my friend Dave. He confided that he has not been the same since the pandemic and sometimes finds it hard to manage. The solution for his sorrow is what every man longs for, and few attain. It is called happiness!
“Chief Happiness Officer”
After my conversation with Dave, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Keeping Workers Happy Is No Joke to These Officers” by Callum Borchers.1 This piece explained how companies are helping people like my friend Dave be happy and productive.
Everyone has heard about chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief financial officers (CFOs). Mr. Borcher reports that many companies have now added a CHO or “chief happiness officer” to their staffs.
One such CHO is Erika Conklin, who was hired by a digital marketing startup. As part of her job, she recently provided “beer and Jet Skis for a company retreat to Sarasota, Florida.” Izzy Blach, another CHO, organized a company volleyball game to brighten an otherwise gloomy day.
The actual of companies with CHOs is hard to determine. However, the article points out that “thousands of workers now identify as such on LinkedIn.”
In reality, this new group of “chiefs” only makes the person believe they are happy. Those who suffer from sadness are largely the product of a frenetically intemperate world, where they find no true joy in Jet Skis. The speed of life is an obstacle, not a path, to those who search for this pearl of great price.
The article does provoke a very important question. What is happiness, and how do we attain it?
Looking for Happiness in All the Wrong Places
This is the subject of a book titled Happiness and Contemplation by Joseph Pieper. The author explains how our craving for happiness is inextricably linked to our nature. We naturally seek it. Although we have free will, we cannot choose to opt-out of the desire to be happy.
Marketing specialists often appeal to this overwhelming desire. If you analyze TV commercials, billboards and radio ads, they all carry the same underlying message, “Buy this product, and you will be happy.”
However, the forms of “happiness” these advertisers peddle often appeal to pleasures linked to our fallen nature. Some years ago, Justin Petruccelli wrote an article titled “Marketing to the 7 Deadly Sins, When it comes to recession-proof businesses, Vice is Nice”.2 He illustrated how marketers get consumers to buy a product by inciting them to give in to their base instincts.
While obviously wrong, such instincts do not lead to happiness. Indeed even legitimate joys, like those offered by CHOs, cannot satisfy us. Mr. Pieper explains that this is because, “Each gratification we obtain, although quite pleasurable, always points to the ultimate one.”
Thus, he concludes, “Every fulfillment this side of Heaven instantly reveals its inadequacy. It is immediately evident that such satisfactions are not enough; they are not what we really sought; they cannot really satisfy us at all.”
Fame and Fortune Do Not Bring Happiness
Proof of this truth can be seen in the thing most humans feel will bring them happiness, money. Stories abound about the misery of million-dollar-jackpot winners. Most lottery winners live to regret it and often admit it made their lives a veritable hell.
Similar disillusionment happens with those who search for happiness from machines and gadgetry. Since technology is advancing exponentially, what we buy today will be obsolete tomorrow.
When asked if he is happy with his new purchase, the buyer of the latest and greatest in technology will say yes. However, tomorrow he will be in an Apple store, paying homage to the memory of Steve Jobs and purchasing the next, latest and greatest model. Indeed, the things of this earth leave us dissatisfied and always wanting more.
Yet another proof is the lives of many Hollywood actors who abuse drugs and alcohol, get divorced, or even commit suicide. Laurie Kienlen describes their sadness in an article titled “11 Reasons You Don’t Want to Be a Movie Star.”3
The stars are disappointed because they sense “the whole experience of reaching the pinnacle of success and realizing it’s not as fulfilling as you think …at first, it’s exhilarating, but then you eventually wonder, ‘Is this it? What else is there in life?’”
If all these things will not make us happy, what will?
The Bonum Universale
Joseph Pieper answers this pressing question. He points out that “even if we were to receive every good the world has to offer, we would be forced to say: It is too little to make us happy.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that what we are searching for is not just any good. What we desire, what we crave, is something he calls the bonum universale, which Dr. Pieper translates as the “universal good” or the “whole good, a goodness so very good that there is nothing in it which is not good, and nothing outside of it which could be good. The whole good cannot be found anywhere in the realm of created things; it is encountered in God alone.”
Man craves and searches for this good, which is vital to our existence. Catholic thinker Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira argues that there is a Revolution,4 that is destroying Christian civilization. This Revolution deviates this craving for the good to lead men down the wrong path.
Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira says there are two concepts of happiness in the world. The Revolution offered one, which he defined as the happiness of the body and characterized by agitation. The other is that of the Counter-Revolution, which is the happiness of the spirit that is calm and tranquil.
Human nature yearns for happiness that is more spiritual than material. To lead man away from true happiness, the Revolution offers forms of entertainment that distract us from what our souls really desire. Modernity follows this path. The result is an explosion of depression, anxiety and suicide.
How do we acquire this bonum universale mentioned by Saint Thomas? The answer to this question is the key to happiness, which a CHO is unlikely to provide.
What is Happiness, and Where Can We Find It?
Joseph Pieper states, “No one can obtain felicity by pursuit.” We cannot find happiness; it finds us. Nathaniel Hawthorne said the same thing but in different words.
He likened happiness to a butterfly, “which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Happiness often happens when pursuing one thing and getting something totally different and better.
Life’s greatest joys are often unexpected. I recall being stranded on the side of a Kansas road during a snowstorm. A dear friend who is also a skilled mechanic came to the rescue and spent the better part of his day joyfully solving my problem. We laughed and talked amid the hardship to the point that it was truly one of the more meaningful days of my life. It provided me with a glimpse of what true friendship is.
Saint Thomas explains why such happenings are so soul-stirring. He says that the “essence of happiness consists in an act of the intellect.” The highest form of cognition is contemplation, which he defines as a “knowing inspired by love and accompanied by amazement.” It is something that causes us to exclaim, “Wow!”
According to Dr. Pieper, “Love is an indispensable premise of happiness, and only the presence of what is loved makes us happy.” He illustrates this point by telling a story of two POWs lying on their prison cots. One asked the other what makes men happy? Their answer was: “Being happy is equivalent to being together with those we love.”
However, Dr. Pieper quickly says that it is not enough. The presence of the one we love must “be actualized by the power of cognition.” In other words, we need to see them closely, not just look at them.
I have seen this happiness at the arrivals section of an airport. The expression on peoples’ faces upon seeing loved ones waiting for them is priceless. They nearly explode with joy and seem to possess a form of happiness that no amount of money in the world could buy. This is because they do not just look at the object of their affection but see them.
This concept of happiness would not be complete without a word about the cross. While the butterfly is an apt symbol of happiness that flees from us, the cross is the opposite. Thus, it has been likened to a man’s shadow. The more you flee from it, the more it pursues you. So the solution for a Catholic is to embrace the daily crosses that come our way, and from time to time, true joy will appear in unexpected places, even during a snowstorm in Kansas.
This is why the virtue of temperance, so well defined in the book, Return to Order by John Horvat, is so important. It is also why CHOs are not the solution for sadness. They merely mask the problem like a doctor who puts a Band-Aid on cancer. Modern man needs to learn how to sit calmly and wait for the butterfly.
Photo Credit: © robsonphoto – stock.adobe.com
4. We use the word Revolution as defined in the book Revolution and Counter-Revolution by Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, founder of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). The Revolution refers to the historical process of the decadence of Christendom that seeks total equality and freedom.