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Godless Happiness

What's Faith Got To Do With It?

by Timothy J. Madigan

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.

It is not enough to be happy to have an excellent life. The point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow and fulfill our potential. [1]

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What is "happiness?" For many religious believers, it is a state of perfection that can only be achieved in the afterlife, when they will receive eternal reward for their good deeds on Earth. More down-to-earth philosophers, like the English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), felt that happiness is indistinguishable from physical pleasure: acts that we enjoy should be maximized, while those that cause harm should be minimized. He even developed a "hedonic calculus" to rate activities on a scale from greater to lesser pleasure. Yet the person he most influenced, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), recognized the inadequacy of a system that focused primarily on physical gratifications, which are fleeting and quite often detrimental in the long run to one's well being. In Mill's famous words, "It is better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied." While ignorance may at times be blissful, it is nothing to be proud of. The intellectual pleasures provide longer-lasting benefits. For Mill, the highest good was to pursue a life of learning, and to apply what was learned to the betterment of the human condition.

In this regard, Mill was harkening back to what is still perhaps the most relevant discussion of "happiness": Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. In this work, written as a manual for his son Nichomacheus, Aristotle discusses the concept of eudaimonia. Usually translated from the ancient Greek as "happiness," a better translation would be "self-fulfillment through personal excellence." For Aristotle, the good life consisted of developing one's natural abilities through the use of reason. A virtuous life is one where proper habits are formed that allow one to reach one's full potential.

Yet Aristotle felt that only a small number of people - excluding poor men, those without families, those who were unattractive, and all women - had the intellectual capacities and the strength of will to achieve eudaimonia. However, this elitist concept of happiness is not one that most humanists would feel comfortable espousing.

Another problem with Aristotle's description is the assumption that the pursuit of knowledge - including self-knowledge - will necessarily be beneficial. For the truth can often be painful. The desire to retreat from reality, to find refuge in comforting myths or consoling hopes, is also a basic part of human nature.

Religions are often able to help shield people from painful realities, such as human mortality, the lack of ultimate justice, and the ravages of an indifferent natural world. It is not surprising that several recent studies report that religious believers are happier than nonbelievers. According to happiness researchers David G. Myers and Ed Diener:

In one Gallup Poll, highly spiritual people were twice as likely as those lowest in spiritual commitment to declare themselves very happy. Other surveys find that happiness and life satisfaction rise with strength or religious affiliation and frequency of worship attendance. One statistical digest of research among the elderly found that one of the best predictors of life satisfaction is religiousness. [2]

One needs to explore in just what sense religious people claim to be happy. Clearly, they experience a sense of social support, as well as a sense of purpose and hope for the future. Within their various religious traditions, there is a commitment to something greater than themselves. But is religion per se necessary for such happiness, especially if one sees it to be a support system based on lies, misinformation, and indoctrination? Can one advocate the need for religion if one is not able to find its doctrines grounded in verifiable facts? In his popular book from 1930, The Conquest of Happiness (still one of the best manuals on how to get the most out of life), the humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell discusses this dilemma:

The men I have known who believed that the English were the lost ten tribes were almost invariably happy, while as for those who believed that the English were only the tribes of Ephriam and Manasseh, their bliss knew no bounds. I am not suggesting that the reader should adopt this creed, since I cannot advocate any happiness based upon what seem to me to be false beliefs. [3]

Happiness at what price? Where do intellectual honesty and personal excellence enter into the composition? Should contentment be the goal of human beings?

New Conceptions of Happiness

It is here that the work of University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proves helpful. For several decades now, he has scientifically studied individuals who claim to be living rewarding existences - modern-day exponents of Aristotelian self-fulfillment. He refers to such an experience as "flow," since most people studied describe it in terms of being so involved in an activity that they lose track of everything else, even time. Yet, unlike Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, flow is something that is experienced by men and women from all walks of life.

Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow focuses not so much on happiness as a feeling, but rather the process of achievement. It is the matching of internal skills with external possibilities. "What I `discovered,'" he writes, "was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy." [4] Csikszentmihalyi is not merely a theoretician. He is engaged in projects to help people better understand, and utilize, the concept of flow. For instance, he has recently joined forces with Martin E. P. Seligman, the new president of the American Psychological Association, to establish a research network to refocus the attention of the psychological community toward happiness, rather than its usual emphasis on depression, alienation, and aberrant behavior. [5] He and Csikszentmihalyi feel that further dissemination of the flow concept will aid in this project.

Yet flow is not synonymous with contentment. An element of dissatisfaction is a key part of it - one must keep reaching for goals not yet attained. Increasing complexity is a necessary component. In order to achieve this, though, people tend to need structures in which to operate, and like-minded individuals who encourage them to reach their "personal best." (It is not coincidental that Aristotle devotes a good part of the Nichomachean Ethics to describing the important role that friends provide in motivating one to strive for the good life.)

Religion can often provide such order, especially with its rituals, as well as a circle of co-believers. But this can occur at the expense of self-development. When institutions encourage one to accept dogmatically "revealed" doctrines and time-honored practices, the chance to be creative is stifled.

The Humanist Path

The exciting challenge facing humanists is to discover a rewarding way of life without reliance upon traditional faith. The reason so many nonbelievers report being unhappy may have less to do with their lack of religious faith, and more to do with the fact that they lack both communities in which to interact and encouragement to pursue their own visions. But we should also focus on the happiness that comes from facing the truth and living with it. Intellectual integrity is an important aspect of the humanistic good life.

In his seminal essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1940), the French existentialist writer Albert Camus discusses the Ancient Greek legend of the king who - in punishment for defying the gods - was sentenced to an eternity of pushing a large rock up a steep hill in Hades, only to have it fall back every time he reaches the top. It is hard to think of a more pointless task. Yet Camus ends the essay with the words "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

How can one possibly be happy in such a circumstance? Sisyphus, trudging down the mountain to once again retrieve his burden, nonetheless smiles in memory of the great adventures he had had on earth (including temporarily imprisoning the God of the Underworld in a doghouse). He defied the gods right up until the end. He earned his rock, and he pushes it proudly.

The excellent life, then, is one of striving to be the best person one is capable of becoming. In Mill's example, Socrates is not dissatisfied because of his inadequacies, but rather because of his awareness that he has still so much to learn and experience in the world. His dissatisfaction spurs him on; it does not cause him despair. In a culture that still disparages independent thinking, today's humanists also need to be spurred on to achieve excellent lives. And the best way to do this is with a little help from their friends.


  1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), p. 122.
  2. David G. Myers and Ed Diener, "The Science of Happiness," The Futurist, September-October, 1997, p. 7.
  3. Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Signet Books, 1951), p. 90.
  4. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 2.
  5. "Seeking a Focus on Joy in Field of Psychology," Trish Hall, the New York Times, April 28, 1998.

Timothy J. Madigan is Editor of Free Inquiry.

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