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. 
- 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
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
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. 
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. 
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." 
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.  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
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
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), p. 122.
- David G. Myers and Ed Diener, "The Science of Happiness," The Futurist,
September-October, 1997, p. 7.
- Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Signet Books, 1951),
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New
York: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 2.
- "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