Happiness — the Measure of a Good Life

Fr. Shay Cullen
June 1, 2011

Happiness, for one nation at least, is the measure by which they want to judge themselves to be well governed, developed and successful. The measuring stick of the people of Bhutan, a small impoverished kingdom in the Himalayas is Gross National Happiness (or GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (or GDP). Simply put, spiritual well-being is of greater value than materialistic success.

However, most nations and individuals pursue prosperity and the relentless acquisition of possessions as the goal of living. It is the unquestioned assumption that pursuing wealth is the same as the pursuit of happiness. The consumer society is a very unhappy one. It is an economy built on the need for many people to continue to purchase and consume products. When they consume more than they earn, they are encouraged to borrow money and to continue to do so until all sources are exhausted. In 2008, the world economy was on the edge of collapse. It was and still is a very unhappy time for a very large number of people.

For the people of Bhutan and many other people, the amount of accumulated wealth is not the criteria by which to judge the well-being of a nation or the ultimate goal of governance. For them, the worthy ultimate goal is the measure of happiness of each individual as part of a group.
The best way to live a successful life is to seek out the meaning of happiness. We could do well to examine the quality of our lives and ask, am I happy?

Money alone is not necessarily the measure of success of life or happiness. There is more to living a worthy and worthwhile life than having more money than we need. Sharing our wealth with others for example, rather than hoarding, is one path towards happiness. It is a step to sharing and being less self-centered. There are wealthy persons who become philanthropists and start to share and do good things in the world, and they find a good measure of happiness. They are giving from their abundance, and they still live in comfort. Their giving is painless.

There are those who traveled the opposite path. Over the centuries many abandoned wealth, like St. Francis of Assisi, and took vows of poverty. They choose to live on the bare necessities, owning nothing, living in seclusion or surviving in groups and communities. For them life was a daily spiritual experience, despite physical deprivation and hardship. It was overall a life-long experience of inner happiness. They were of service to the community, the poor and the deprived. Real happiness is essentially a spiritual experience.

Having a livelihood that provides an income sufficient to satisfy the basic needs, banish hunger, provide clothes, shelter and enough to secure the health and education for our family is a necessity and a worthy goal. This is the struggle of the majority of people as they strive to reach that goal. They are not living in misery and unhappiness as they make the journey; the journey itself and the struggle can be the source of happiness. That’s because it has the elements of sacrifice, unselfishness, sharing and solidarity. These are the essential ingredients for an enduring experience of happiness.

Above all, the restless heart craves attention. Giving that attention, recognizing the individual with respect, meeting that need from one’s own inner resources is giving without expecting a reward; it is essentially unconditional love. Loving another unconditionally, especially if unrelated, is a selfless love which brings happiness to the giver. But being the object or receiver of unconditional friendship and love is the greatest happiness of all. It is a rare experience indeed.

Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.