Archive for the ‘happiness’ Tag

Why be altruistic? Because it makes you happy.

One of the nice things about Aristotelian virtue ethics over a deontological or utilitarian moral theory is that morality is considered something natural to human beings, something intrinsic rather than extrinsically imposed. The virtue of temperance towards food, for example, is not something unnatural to human beings, meaning that in order to be temperate, one would have to overcome one’s human inclinations towards food, but is rather the natural way in which human beings are supposed to relate to food—not eating too much or too little, eating a variety of foods, eating at the right time in the right place, etc. Virtue then, rather than being contrary to inclination, can be considered the perfection of inclination.

An op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff in this weekend’s NYTimes illustrates this point nicely on the topic of altruism. Drawing off the work of Jonathan Haidt, Kristoff writes,

Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.

“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.” . . .

. . . Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.
I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.
The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

Unlike a deontological theory which says that we should give of our resources because we have an obligation to, or a utilitarian theory which says that we should give of our resources to maximize overall utility or societal contentment, it seems that empirical evidence is supporting the virtue perspective that we should give of our resources because we are inclined to do so. More specifically, human beings are created to share what they have, and doing so leads to their own happiness, in addition to the happiness of others.

Thomas Aquinas’ Views Featured in TIME Magazine

I am delighted with the feature article for the most recent Time Magazine.  I love it when an article substantiating everything Thomas Aquinas said 800 years is considered “news.”  The Time Magazine article is all about happiness, which I talked about here in my article on beatitude as providing the foundation of Aquinas’ ethics.  This article, however, is not so much about ethics but rather, positive psychology, which I also talked about here.

Positive psychologists are interested  not just in what makes us depressed, but also in what makes us happy.  Or as Martin Seligman, the new president of the American Psychological Association, describes the goal of positive psychology: “It wasn’t enough for us (psychologists) to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”  Seligman and others like Edward Diener, Ray Fowler, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have been pushing scientific studies to determine what makes us happy, but for a Thomist, the conclusions are not news.

Turns out, wealth doesn’t make us happy.  As described by this accompanying Time Magazine article, scientific research indicates that people with above-average incomes are not much happier than others and that loss of wealth is usually only accompanied by a short term loss in happiness, if overal happiness is affected at all.

But Aquinas already said that happiness did not reside in the acquiring of wealth (I-II, Q. 2, art. 1) because wealth is meant to serve something else like the satisfaction of needs.  Even wealth that buys us not just what we need but all the things in the world that we may want does not satisfy our insatiable human appetites, as Aquinas explains:

in the desire for wealth and for whatsoever temporal goods . . . when we already possess them, we despise them, and seek others: which is the sense of Our Lord’s words (John 4:13): “Whosoever drinketh of this water,” by which temporal goods are signified, “shall thirst again.” The reason of this is that we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them: and this very fact shows that they are imperfect, and the sovereign good does not consist therein.

Positive psychologists are also discovering that education, fame, goods of the body, and even pleasure don’t make us happy.  All of Question 2 of the Prima Secundae, however,  is dedicated to proving this exact fact.

Positive psychologists have also discovered that friends are conducive to happiness.  Aquinas derives this notion from Aristotle, making this insight even more ancient:

If we speak of the happiness of this life, the happy man needs friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix, 9), not, indeed, to make use of them, since he suffices himself; nor to delight in them, since he possesses perfect delight in the operation of virtue; but for the purpose of a good operation, viz. that he may do good to them; that he may delight in seeing them do good; and again that he may be helped by them in his good work. For in order that man may do well, whether in the works of the active life, or in those of the contemplative life, he needs the fellowship of friends (I-II, Q. 4, art. 8 )

Religion also seems to make us  happier, which I talked about here.

But it also turns out that even the happiest people are sad some of the time.  According to Aquinas, this is because the happiness of this life is only imperfect happiness.  True happiness consists only in contemplating the Divine Essence, which is the only sort of happiness that cannot be lost.

Like I say, I am delighted that positive psychology is confirming all of these great Thomistic insights.  As valuable as positive psychology is, however, it can only tell us about imperfect happiness, which by its very nature will always be a little dissatisfying.  Maybe those like Martin Seligman and Edward Diener who are on the quest for happiness will, in their dissatisfaction with what positive psychology concludes, lead others to the theology of Thomas Aquinas which concludes that “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (I-II,  Q. 3, art. 8).

Why Religion Might Make You Better Behaved and Happier

University of Miami researchers David McCullough and Brian Willoughby have issued a report claiming that religion promotes self-control, described in this recent New York Times article.  The article, written by a non-religious person, evaluates the claim backed up by other research that religion makes people better-behaved and overall happier that non-religious folk.  The most fascinating part to me was that McCullough and Willoughby do not conclude that the success religious people enjoy is attributed to  obedience to external rules imposed by a religious belief system, but rather to an internal strength that religious people have: “Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” McCullough said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”  I think an alternate explanation may be what Aquinas calls “infused moral virtues.”

In Thomas Aquinas’ system, a moral virtue is a good habit by which a person is disposed to act well as if it were second nature.  A virtue is formed by acting well over and over again.  He thinks that the development of  virtue is something that both believers and non-believers can do.  In other words, there is nothing specifically religious or theological about the moral virtues.  Anybody can theoretically discipline their passions to be virtuous, though in practice, the development of virtue is difficult and frequently unsuccessful.

However, there is another category of virtue which Aquinas calls “infused moral virtues.”  The infused moral virtues are not caused by acting well over and over again.  Thomas says that the moral virtues must ordinarily be “acquired” through the arduous process of habituating ourselves to the good.   Rather, the infused moral virtues are implanted  in us by God through grace.

Infused moral virtues are similar to their acquired counterparts.  We can still speak of infused and acquired temperance, for example, and both are habits that perfect the concupiscible appetite which is the appetite for things like food, drink, and sex.  However, there are two major differences between acquired and infused virtues, besides how they are caused.  The first difference is the matter with which the virtues are concerned, what Aquinas calls the object (materia circa quam):

the object of temperance is a good in respect of the pleasures connected with the concupiscence of touch. . . it is evident that the mean that is appointed in such like concupiscences according to the rule of human reason, is seen under a different aspect from the mean which is fixed according to Divine rule. For instance, in the consumption of food, the mean fixed by human reason, is that food should not harm the health of the body, nor hinder the use of reason: whereas, according to the Divine rule, it behooves man to “chastise his body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27), by abstinence in food, drink and the like” (I-II, Q. 63, art. 3).

So the object of acquired moral virtues is some earthly good like health according to what human reason dictates, whereas the object of the infused moral virtues is obedience to the command of God.  The second difference is that the infused and acquired virtues are directed towards different things.  The acquired virtues are directed towards are directed towards earthly goods that make people good “citizens of earth,” whereas the infused moral virtues are directed toward spiritual goods that make one a good “citizen of heaven.”

We need the infused moral virtues because human beings are given a supernatural end of eternal happiness (beatitude), which we cannot reach by our own effort, as well as a natural end of happiness in this life, which we can achieve based  on our own effort and cultivation of virtue.  Just as the acquired moral virtues habituate us to behave virtuously  and flourish in this life, the infused moral virtues habituate us to flourish in the next life as well.

We receive the infused moral virtues through grace.  We receive grace by going to church and worshiping collectively, by receiving the sacraments, and by praying.  Their source is religious in nature–Thomas does not think that pagans can receive the infused moral virtues.

The infused moral virtues could explain why religious people tend to be better at self-control as well more successful and happier than their non-religious counterparts.  Virtue is very difficult to acquire and most people are unsuccessful.  If a person through grace is infused with temperance, this will still manifest itself as self-control towards food and drink, even if on their own, they  were unsuccessful at developing temperance through acquisition.


Aquinas’ ethics begins with and is founded on the end.  He introduces the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica with a treatise on man’s last end which he describes as “last in the order of execution but first in the agent’s intention.”  What he means is that the end of an action is the last thing achieved in acting but the reason for acting is nevertheless the end.  Think of spending several hours baking and decorating cookies, which I recently did for Christmas.  The time mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it into shapes, baking the cookies, and finally, painstakingly decorating them was all motivated by the last thing “in the order of execution of baking cookies,” which is the eating and enjoying of them.  In the same way, Aquinas says that the ultimate end of all actions, which he will define as beatitude ,is the first in the order of intention for all human action.  In other words, all human action is motivated by the desire to be happy.  The reason I baked the cookies at all is because in some way, I thought that baking cookies, and watching my family enjoy eating them, would make me happy.

Another way of stating this is that the final cause is the first in the chain of causes.  We think of what we want to achieve by acting before we act.

Aquinas says that there are two ways to think of the end.  The first is the thing itself in which the end exists (beatitude) and the second is the use or acquisition of that thing.  A glutton’s end is food, and the use of that end consists in the pleasure that comes from eating.  According to Aquinas, the ultimate end of human existence in the first sense is God “who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will.”  In the second sense, the last end for human beings is the enjoyment of this last end which Aquinas calls “beatitude.”

The word beatitude is a difficult word to understand in English.  Sometimes it is translated as “happiness,” but beatitude is a long-lasting happiness, not something that can be easily lost.  “Happiness” does not connote the steadfastness of beatitude.  Sometimes beatitude is translated as “flourishing” which again does not fully convey the full meaning of what Aquinas means by the word (mainly because we don‘t really use the word flourishing in our everyday speech and nobody really knows what it means).  What we can do is identify what beatitude is not.  Aquinas says it is not wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, good of the body, or pleasure.  It is not something external, not something that can be easily lost, not something arbitrary like luck, and not any created good.  Beatitude, according to Aquinas, is not even a good of the soul because if it were, the object of happiness would be human beings, which would mean that human beings could be loved for their own sake, which is contrary to what Christians hold to be true.

Beatitude, is, however, uncreated.  It is not something we have, it is something we do.  Aquinas speaks of beatitudes in two senses–its cause or object and its use.  Beatitude in the first sense (the thing in which beatitude consists) can only be God, and in the second sense, beatitude can only be the enjoyment of God:

“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”

How does Aquinas back this up?  First, he says that nobody can be perfectly happy as long as there is something left for him to desire.  Nothing on earth leaves us without some other desire to be fulfilled.  It is almost a truism to say that just because a person has everything doesn’t mean that person is happy.

Aquinas’ second observation about happiness is that human beings are constituted to seek out the cause of things.  If we see mold growing on a piece of fruit, we seek out the chain of causes behind this occurrence until we arrive at the ultimate cause.  Our human nature is constituted to seek out the ultimate cause of our happiness.  However, simply knowing that God is behind our happiness is not enough for our intellect; we want to know the essence of God and this is beyond what the human intellect on its own can accomplish.  We need something else, some power outside of ourselves which Aquinas calls grace to elevate our intellect to know God in this way and to open our eyes to see God in this way.

In light of all this, Aquinas thinks that we can never achieve perfect happiness in this life.  We can, however, achieve “imperfect beatitude.”  This imperfect happiness is analogous to perfect happiness.  It is stable and lasting, it doesn’t exist in external goods like money, fame, or power.  Both types of happiness are “operations” or acts, not things.  The major distinction between perfect happiness and imperfect happiness is that perfect happiness consists in contemplating the Divine Essence, which we can’t do on our own, and imperfect happiness consists in the exercise of virtue, which we can do without any external supernatural aid.

Happiness in this life is often unstable and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.  I knew somebody who had found great happiness–this person this person (we will call him Job) had friends, career success, a comfortable and even  luxurious existence.  People commented on how happy Job seemed going into the holiday season.  About two weeks or so before Christmas, Job suffered a great disaster resulting in the loss of his home and possessions.  Even if Job was a virtuous person and had all the right values and gave thanks to God that he still had his life, Job is still less happy in his homeless, possession-less existence.  Aquinas’ treatment of happiness echoes Jesus saying to “store up treasures in heaven” because only in heaven can we ever find true happiness.  In fact, this is the definition of heaven in Aquinas’ book–total happiness.

Some people say that Aquinas has an otherworldly understanding of happiness that does not allow for any sort of happiness in this life.  I do not believe this is the case.  Aquinas thinks that we can flourish in this life in different ways but he wants to keep us from thinking that this life is it.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work and how good we become, there will always be something else that we desire in order to be happy.  Augustine expressed this sentiment in his Confessions when he said, “My heart is restless until it rests in you.”  We always hunger for God as the ultimate Giver of all good things, and until we get him, we stay a little bit hungry.