What’s Going to Bring Me Happiness?

The Implications of a Shift from a Morality of Obligation to a Morality of Happiness

“ ‘What will bring us happiness?’ many say. Lord, let the light of your face shine upon us.” ~ Psalm 4:6.

Do you ever feel like you are just going through the motions, checking off the good deed box because you feel obliged to do so? Do you find yourself daydreaming about a better, happier life, free from the many restrictions of obligation? When I was in high school, I was told, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex before marriage, etc. . . .” What happens when you say to your kids not to do something? Naturally, they ask why and tend to do exactly the thing you told them not to do. The forbidden fruit in the garden becomes all the more seductive when we are told not to eat it, and the Serpent sows doubt in our minds: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” . . . For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:3–4). Before we know it, we can think like Eve: “What’s the deal with all of these rules? They are just here to keep me from doing what I want and being who I want to be. God, the lawgiver, is a tyrant who wants to control me. Does he really want what’s good for me? How does he know what’s going to make me happy?” I think all of us sinners can relate to our first parents’ reasoning. Is the Church just a huge organization telling me what to do with endless outdated rules, to make us “good,” well-behaved, quiet citizens?

To be more concrete, let’s look at a current moral hot topic, sex before marriage. For so long Catholic sex education within the family, the Church, and the school consisted of avoiding at all costs this awkward conversation by repeating, “Don’t have sex before marriage! Why? Because it is a sin and people who have sex before marriage go to hell.” O.K., well, most of us kept our mouths shut and just followed the rule out of fear. This is an example of what theologians call a morality of obligation, which is a legalism cut off from the profound “why” of our happiness.1

This “it doesn’t matter why, it’s the law” or “because I said so” morality works for a little bit, but after countless attacks from the Serpent working through pop culture, popular opinion, peer pressure, we start to think like Eve. The Sexual Revolution mindset creeps in and says, “Love is free and not a bunch of rules. Who are you to tell me I can’t have fun and use my body as I want?” The youth flooded the streets of Paris in May 1968 and proclaimed victory over the tyrannical old world which controlled by a set of rules, shouting, “Il est interdit d’interdire! It’s forbidden to forbid!”

Doesn’t this describe so well our “whatever floats your boat, who am I to judge” relativistic society?2 So where do we stand after this moment of illusory independence in rebellion? Do we reject all of the old rules, do what we want, and make our own rules?3 This rebellion is the reactionary product of a morality of obligation which oppressed with guilt. So do we get rid of all the rules? I propose to you another way, the Catholic way, a morality of happiness.

Made for Perfect Joy

Jesus and His Church want us to go deeper and to discover the profound reason behind the rules. God created us in his image and likeness out of pure love. We are made to respond to this love with love. We were made for perfect happiness and eternal life, which is perfect union with God.4 God is not a tyrant who dominates but a Father who wants us to experience “life to the full” (Jn. 10:10). This good life is loving to the full and knowing to the full.5 God placed this desire for the truth and for love in us. It’s like we have a God-sized hole in our hearts, and no matter what we try to fill it within this world — pleasure, popularity, fitness, power, sex, money, thrills, even friends and family — we cannot fill this up, because as St. Augustine said, “You made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

So what are we to do? The first point is to confirm that God is good and that He wants our good, our happiness, and to be the most excellent version of ourselves.6 This is what we are made for. We all want to be happy, and a morality of happiness and excellence takes into consideration that we are all called to journey towards the fullness of life by orienting ourselves by our choices towards the things that are really going to lead to God, our true happiness. For Olympic athletes, there are many obstacles in the way of the gold medal, so they train their mind, body and spirit to perform to the best of their natural ability. This is where the virtues and gifts of God fit into the picture. They are stable dispositions that permit us to live well, according to what’s going to bring true happiness and avoid the many pitfalls. They help us to know and love as God calls us to without cutting ourselves short.7

The Purpose of the Rules

Now we can ask, where do the rules fit into all this? What if following the rules doesn’t make me immediately happy? For example, we go to our kids on Sunday morning and tell them it’s time for Church and they tell us, “It’s boring, Father talks too much, the music is awful, etc . . .” Basically, it doesn’t make me happy. In a morality of happiness, can we just throw out the rules and say to the kid, “Well, I’m not going to make you do anything that doesn’t make you happy”?

Would this be good parenting? This would lead to the child not going to school, not eating any veggies, not sharing, not doing any work, or anything that puts them out of their comfort zone. This would lead to one huge brat of a kid who would be profoundly unhappy, partly because of poor parenting. Good parents establish boundaries and rules out of love for their children in order to guide them in the way of true happiness. As I said earlier, this true happiness is perfect union with God and not just doing whatever pleases me, and it is distinct from imperfect happiness, which we often settle for.8

To use an image, we are on a winding road to our destination, heaven. There are obstacles on this journey: sharp turns, potholes, detours, and false short cuts (sin). The rules and commandments are the guard rails put up out of love by God to lead us to our final destination. Or you can think about them as the banks of a river which project it to its end. If there are no banks, then there is no river, just a big puddle. The important thing is to remember that these rules flow from love. Love is always first with God. Never forget that! St John says, “God is love,” (1 Jn 4:8), and so all of his actions flow from love. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). The commandments are an essential part of our living relationship with God. They are there to help us get to our destination and grow in true freedom, and so we must follow them out of love for God who loves us.

It’s up to you to help your kids to understand that we go to church because we love God, we go to be united with God and one another, and this is our happiness, our taste of heaven on earth. But what if we don’t feel this love and this happiness? Then we are called to be faithful to the commandments to grow in love. What would happen if a mother didn’t take care of her child when they were sick because she didn’t feel like it? What if a husband only spent time with his wife and kids when he felt like he loved them? This is not loving at all. We are called to love even when it’s inconvenient; like Mother Teresa said, we must “love until it hurts.”

The commandments are there not to make us just go through the motions but to keep us faithful to the path of happiness. We go to church every Sunday because it is really good for us; the mother cares for her sick child because it’s not only good for the child, but it’s good for her. As our Mother the Church teaches, one “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS 24). This is true love. So you can see that an integral morality of happiness does not exclude obligation but rather puts it in its proper place, which is flowing from love.

So let’s get back to the example of sex before marriage. The command, do not have sex before marriage, is valid and true, but we cannot just force it down our children’s throats. We need to situate it in the context of a morality of happiness which helps them to see why having sex before marriage is not going to lead to their happiness, because it is cutting themselves short of the true, faithful, exclusive, and fruitful love for which they were created (c.f. Humane Vitae, 9). This conversation is counter-cultural and maybe a little uncomfortable, but it is essential. Either we teach our kids about the beauty of sex in its proper context of a marriage and a family, or we let the world teach them through the Internet. This means that pornography, the hook-up culture, and every other sort of sexual deviance is right around the corner.

This is just one example of how a morality of happiness founded on the truths of the Gospel can enlighten our lives and keep us on the path of fulfillment and peace. This path is also one of true freedom because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). Our Lord does not want from us the obedience of robots or slaves, who follow commands merely out of compulsion or fear, like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who materially follows his father’s orders, but whose heart is far from him.9 The heart of the Father wants beloved children in the image of His Only Begotten Son. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15). Obedience flows from this loving filial relationship that trusts that, even when God’s commandments may be difficult and take some effort to understand, they come from our most wise and all-loving Father who gives them to lead us to happiness.
  1. This morality of obligation is heavily influenced by Kant, who creates this conflict with the end by going against the traditional view on morality, which sees the end as a major principle of our human acts. Kant says that a good act is void of motives for the end in order to prevent someone from using another as a means to an end. This can appear as version of the Golden Rule and a noble response to utilitarianism, but it is not taking into account the reality that when man acts out of his reason and will, it is necessarily for an end, namely what they believe will lead to their happiness. Of course, we cannot reduce another person to a simple means to be used and consumed by us because this is not going to lead to true happiness. But we cannot deny the fact that we are made to seek our happiness and to search for the ways to arrive at that true happiness. (c.f. ST I-II q 1 a 1 Res. and Servais Pinckaers, “Morality: The Catholic View” (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2003), pg. 73).
  2. This is what Benedict XVI described in his homily 4/18/05, as the dictatorship of relativism, where there is no objective truth that unites us but only individuals’ subjective truth that no one can judge because there is no objective standard. Because truth is not the objective measure, we are victim to dictatorship of the opinions of those who are in power.
  3. This is the temptation of modern man who, following the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche, say that the enlightened “give themselves laws, who create themselves.” This independence and illusory power from rejecting God is Nietzsche’s meaning of happiness.
  4. This is the profound meaning to our existence, to know love and serve God in this world and to be perfectly united with Him in heaven (cf. CCC 1721).
  5. Our minds are made to know the truth and not just a little bit of the truth, but we have infinite desire to know the whole truth. Our hearts are made to love and to be united with the ultimate good. Beatitude, says Saint Thomas, is the perfect attainment of the object of our intelligence and will, which is the ultimate good and the universal truth. Anything less than this will leave us unsatisfied and wanting more. This is the reason why we are never completely happy on this earth and why any limited created good cannot lead to perfect happiness.(c.f. I-II, q 5 art. 3 res.) Only God, the ultimate good and the universal truth, can satisfy us. (C.f. I-II q.2, art. 8 Res.).
  6. This is affirmed countless times in Scripture, as he created and recreated us out of pure love so that we might share in His Eternal Beatitude.
  7. Virtue is an essential aspect of the morality of happiness because we cannot love to the full without this stable disposition toward the good and not just what is convenient. For example, if we are not temperate, then we are slaves to our sensitive appetite and we end up living as an animal.
  8. This is why Pinckaers uses the word joy instead of happiness. “Happiness,” in our cultural context, means I do whatever I want and whatever pleases me. If there is anything that gets in the way of this happiness, like suffering or sacrifice, then I flee. Joy, on the other hand, is much deeper and stable and can still exist in moments of suffering.
  9. cf. Lk 15:29 “But he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” St. Thomas Aquinas describes growth in the spiritual life as growing from the good but imperfect servile fear of punishment to the filial or chaste fear, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, whereby “we revere God and avoid separating ourselves from Him” (ST II-II q 19 a 9).
Br. John Paul Puschautz, CSJ About Br. John Paul Puschautz, CSJ

Br. John Paul Puschautz, a brother of Saint John since 2011, grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and attended the University of Illinois, where he studied fine-art painting before responding to Jesus's call to religious life to seek and to follow Christ as the Beloved Disciple John. He currently resides in New Jersey, where he serves as a campus minister at Seton Hall University.