Pedro Blas González

If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.
—Yes; but is it not to be happy to have a faculty
of being amused by diversion?
—No; for that comes
from elsewhere and from without, and thus is dependent,
and therefore subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents,
which bring inevitable griefs.


What a peculiar thing is human happiness. We spend our entire lives concerned with a state of being, the pursuit of something we call “happiness,” which is essentially more of a fleeting possibility than a concrete, lasting condition. Consider that for most people happiness is something that informs them from without. Thus without the cultivation of the entire person, whatever form of happiness we achieve will remain incomplete. Happiness is fleetingnot because it often eludes those who consciously seek it, but because it demands that we give up the search altogether, lest we first seek self-knowledge. This makes happiness paradoxical.

Like a wild animal, happiness is not easily tamed. However, this does not mean that we can never achieve happiness, only that we must turn inwards, to our moral and spiritual reservoir. Unlike the pursuit of happiness, which is dotted with partial and momentary quality, the former requires that we cultivate it first.

It is difficult to think of happiness as an end in itself. Plato conceived of happiness as the harmony of the three parts of the soul working in unison. Joy, on the other hand, pertains to the whole person. This makes joy an end in itself. Happiness or the lack thereof comes about through an individual’s response to life’s contingencies. As such, the qualitative state of being which we call happiness bespeaks a condition of being human that remains transparent to itself. The more we try to coerce happiness, the more elusive it appears.

Every day we find ourselves embroiled in some form of activity, of our choosing or otherwise. The essence of human freedom is that we have to make choices. We have the ability to discriminate between this or that enterprise, for free will is the defining principle of human existence. We cannot help but to judge human reality. This is an essential trait of human freedom. Our interpretation of reality determines the degree of happiness that we are able to achieve.

Free will acts as a regulator of sensual experience. Our search for happiness, then, comes as the consequence of our need to make choices. It is not difficult to realize that happiness is but one response, among others, to our experiences. What distinguishes our sensual reality from sensual stimuli in animals is that we can reflect on our experiences. Man is able to internalize experience. This makes it possible for us to talk about personality and character, for instance. Reflection allows us to remove ourselves from our experiences, as it were. Without the ability to judge the quality of our experiences, in short, the value and meaning of reality, we easily become susceptible to moral and spiritual confusion.

Our ability to judge human reality differentiates us from animals, for man is capable of a moral and spiritual response to sensual reality. A stunning sunset, a blue, umbrella sky, the smell of brick-oven pizza, or the crack of the bat driving a baseball are all sensual experiences. Sensual experiences make their presence knownin our lives in myriad ways. Our dilemma is that we must reject many of our experiences. The latter exercise of free will requires perspicuity and prudence.

Animals also respond to the sensual world, some critics will argue. For instance, the lioness pursues the gazelle, some dogs are afraid of lightning, and cats find small, caged birds tantalizing. However, such a claim is naive and misleading, even though conveniently fashionable at the moment, for animals do not possess a reflective “I” that makes them the subject of these activities. This can be a burden for some people and the basis of free will for others.

One major difference between man and animals is man’s ability to cultivate a rational response to the world around us, while animals rely solely on instincts. In addition, animals lack the moral and spiritual capacity that allows man to reflect on, and thus internalize the meaning of our experiences. This makes man an existential being.

Man responds to the demands of experience in many ways: morally, spiritual, aesthetically, rationally, and imaginatively. Free will even allows us to turn our back on reason. Ironically, the latter is the result of animal instincts allowed to run rampant. We can enjoy the beauty of a serene lake, but to a prudent person who does not know how to swim, sitting by the shore is enough to quench his curiosity. Surgery is a calculated response to a pressing dilemma, which usually includes enduring pain or discomfort. Both of these experiences require temperance and prudence, two exclusively human virtues.

There is no science of happiness. Man does not possess a manual of how to attain lasting happiness. This is because our ultimate response to happiness is existential. This is why our concern with happiness appears so discernible. As far as we know, man is the only cosmic entity that concerns itself with the pursuit of happiness. Lasting happiness requires the cultivation of what I refer to as “vital symmetry” in a person’s life. Vital symmetry is an existential recognition of the essence of the individual as a person. We can think of vital symmetry as consisting of the reflective ground of personhood. In the absence of this self-reflective ability, human existence is downgraded to mere biological life. The latter reductionism is the staple of all forms of materialism.

Hence, vital symmetry embraces the moral and spiritual component of man. The strength of vital symmetry is its ability to engage a balanced view of life, which originates in our respect for the human person. We can understand vital symmetry as a moral/spiritual vision of life that serves as the ground of the human person. In turn, a symmetrical vital existence, by its very nature, makes moral and spiritual demands on a person’s responsibility to exercise free will. While appearing to be a burden to some people, vital symmetry makes human life, not just happiness, an end in itself.

Yet vital, in this sense of the word, should be understood as an existential, not biological category. As such, vital symmetry elevates us to a broader and more responsive understanding of our role in the natural world. Vital symmetry enlivens man’s capacity for transcendence.

In short, vital symmetry establishes a moral/spiritual vision of personhood as the zenith of human values. Vital symmetry eschews all forms of human existence that are seen as merely biological and mechanical. We can envision vital symmetry as being akin to an actor who steps forward on the stage, away from the backdrop; as a form of sculptured life in high-relief. This means that we must cultivate a reflective and thoughtful stance that allows us to know the essence of our lives as differentiated persons.

One sound reason that we can qualify our relationship with nature is our ability to reflect on natural processes. To be capable of reflection on nature is already to transcend nature. In other words, vital symmetry in life can be acknowledged as a form of grace. While vital symmetry expresses an infinite vision of our incarnate condition as temporal beings, it is informed by the intuition of a differentiated person. It is a healthy sense of the former that allows us to embrace transcendence.

Think of standing in a slightly elevated spot above a groundhog warren and glancing down at groundhogs sticking their heads out of the ground and pulling them back. If we fix our gaze on any given animal, we may have to wait some time for it to resurface. But if we sweep over the entire field, like a camera panning through a panoramic shot, the degree of movement and activity that the animals make appears greater. From a distance, it is difficult to follow the trajectory of any individual groundhog. Yet the field is full of individual animals that we are likely to overlook. Vital symmetry and its corresponding vision for life are akin to a broad view of existence that respects the individual; one where space and time serve as the arena for persons to attain self-knowledge.

Today there is much empty chatter about happiness. The notion of “being happy” has become a rallying cry of popular culture. It seems that everywhere we turn, happiness is a buzzword. This may explain why happiness is equated today with the attainment of pleasure. Lamentably, buzzwords and soundbites threaten to destroy our ability to remain grounded in reality. When we scratch the surface of our superficial preoccupation with happiness, though, we quickly discover that what we are talking about is not so much happiness, as it is carnal and timely pleasure. What we truly seek is joy, but joy is rarely spoken of any longer in Western culture.

Happiness and joy are both responses to human reality. Of the two, only joy is permanent. Joy is felt as the condition of spirits who recognize themselves as incarnate. To use Russell Kirk’s phrase, joy comes about through an embrace of “the permanent things.” Undoubtedly, the intersection of happiness and joy is one of degree, which cannot easily be quantified. Popular culture measures happiness by the extent to which we are steeped in and become consumed by the material realm—the here and now. Popular culture, which regulates all aspects of life in this day and age, rewards forms of human life whose sole purpose is to glorify temporal existence. This helps to explain our embrace of nihilism and debauchery, which is reflected in our social, cultural, and political reality.

While happiness is an outward expression of gratifying experiences, a moment of levity in life’s stages, joy is like smiling privately. Happiness is often attained from outside ourselves; joy takes the form of inner peace. Like fuel that feeds an engine, happiness propels us through the world of other people, things, and events without calling attention to itself. Happiness that is not self-conscious is more akin to joy than our popular conception of happiness. We can reflect on our state of being happy and cherish it, while not commanding it. However, more often than not, happiness is only noticed when it is lacking in our lives. This is the point when we realize that happiness has evaded us. This is a good thing partly because it signals the absence of self-consciousness, the latter being a major source of superficial and neurotic existence in postmodernity. One has only to read current magazine articles or watch movies and television programs to realize the chic appeal that destructive neurosis enjoys today in our culture. Blaise Pascal articulates this best in his Pensées: “Man is full of wants: he loves only those who can satisfy all.”

One reason that happiness is often fleeting is because it attempts to take root in what can be described as moving targets. Happiness is the temporary culmination of emotional fulfillment. This makes our emotional and spiritual well-being transparent. Often it is during the noticeable absence of happiness in our lives, when we have become consumed by the idea of trying to attain happiness, that we realize how fleeting happiness truly is. We cannot cultivate the search for happiness, as we can joy.

Our age is consumed with idle and fashionable talk. This is partly the result of a morally and spiritually bankrupted intelligentsia that attempts to dictate our values. Our descent into a moral and spiritual maelstrom is the reason for our individual and collective unhappiness. Idle talk is a cottage industry today. This make-believe environment has destroyed our ability to remain rooted in reality, and to respect our place in the greater scheme of things. Consider how many people reflect on the “big picture”—as young people used to say—before they took up doing the devil’s work as relativist hipsters. Talking about happiness ad nauseam, as we do about everything else in the West today, does not make one happy.

Talk is cheap, and so is any form of reasoning that leads to debilitating skepticism. The latter’s destructive power feeds off fashionable “thought-experiments” that always promote exceptions, not the time-proven moral laws that have made us civilized. Man cannot tinker with radical skepticism and nihilism without at once making the moral experimenter sick.

Lasting happiness resists becoming another of our fashionable theories. Happy people are fulfilled by essences that speak to the nature of the human person. Haven’t we in the West already dabbled enough in the many ugly faces of the fragmented ego? Why should we be surprised that moral confusion and unprecedented self-destruction pose as the norm today?

Joy is the reward of embracing human existence and wholeheartedly accepting the human condition. This signals a noble kind of knowledge that is not conditioned by the here-and-now. Regrettably, the form of wisdom that we call joy will continue to evade many people. This is because the baser the form of happiness, the more fleeting happiness appears to be. Even though the search for happiness is never in short supply, as is the case with other human commodities, happiness merely remains an elusive possibility for all who seek it. This is yet another paradox of human happiness. 

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.