Recently, BBC News reported about research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on life satisfaction. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-48279876) Unsurprisingly, they concluded that economic security and good health contribute to a higher sense of life satisfaction. It started me thinking, what makes us happy? And perhaps more significantly, what does living the Christian life have to do with happiness?
If you were to ask, “what makes you happy?”, there would likely be a multitude of answers. Some might be quite straightforward, chocolate, a good meal, sunny days. Others, more intricate: being with family and friends, living out my calling, doing good. And all these have value. However, it does seem like there are at least two categories when answering “what makes you happy?” The first way can be described as “what gives you pleasure?” And the second, “what brings you fulfilment?” The latter has a deeper, fuller quality of happiness than the former, although with some overlap.
I’m not the first to consider such questions, and one of the most well-known people to consider this question was Aristotle, well over 2000 years ago. Aristotle used the term “eudemonia” to consider the “good” life. Though often translated as happiness, it is notoriously hard to translate into English, corresponding more to something akin to fulfilment, well-being, or wholeness. It’s not dissimilar to the Sermon on the Mount, which often has the phrase “Blessed are those…” or in some translations “Happy are those…”. Again, the sense in the Sermon on the Mount is something more like “Fulfilled are those…”. So when I’m asking “what makes us happy?”, I’m really asking “what brings us fulfilment?” Another way of thinking about it is to ask “what makes us flourish?” But we’ll return to that idea later.
For Aristotle, a fulfilled life consists in carrying out its purpose excellently. What does this mean? Aristotle believed that everything “aims” at some good (or end, telos) – essentially, everything has a purpose. Vanier puts it this way: ‘it is the tendency of a plant towards the sun, towards its nourishment, the tendency to growth and fullness of life through its flowering and bearing of fruit.’ And the “good” life is the one which fulfils this purpose in the best way possible. Aristotle uses musical instruments to explain this, and specifically the flute. The flute has the purpose of making music, and the best way to fulfil this purpose is to give it to a flute player who can best use it to make beautiful music. You could give the flute to me, and I could blow with all my puff, and it might make a sound, but not a good one. Further still, I could use it as a pea-shooter and, while it might be somewhat successful, it’s not fulfilling the purpose it was made for! Instead ‘any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence.’ In the same way, to live a fulfilled life means living towards the purpose we were intended for.
And this is where we might depart from Aristotle, for a time at least, to consider the purpose of the Christian life. For Aristotle, the purpose of life was an ‘activity of the soul in accordance with reason.’ And reasoning together requires living in a “polis” or community to create social institutions that work towards the common good. Though, as Christians, we might agree these are worthy aims, and we might embrace them in our purpose, I think our aim as Christians extends beyond this. Ultimately, we live out our lives under Christ’s Lordship. We are not simply rational beings, but loving beings who find our fulfilment in loving others. As Vanier points out, ‘happiness then consists not of achieving the greatest possible autonomy, in which we appear strong and capable, but of a sharing of hearts and humility in relation to one another.’
What is the purpose or goal of human life? Vanier gives a starting point: Aristotle and Christianity both ‘tend towards the same end: human beings becoming more fully human.’ Smith takes the Aristotelian “purposeful life”, and merges it with an Augustinian sense of orientating ourselves towards God, to suggest that ‘what’s at issue is not whether a people loves but what that people loves.’ Our purpose therefore, like St. Irenaeus’ “beholding God”, is to orientate our lives towards God and His purposes. More recently, Volf and Croasmun write that ‘the flourishing of human beings and all God’s creatures in the presence of God is God’s foremost concern for creation and should therefore be the central purpose of theology.’ Each of these statements from Vanier, Smith, and Volf deserve more attention but, this limitation aside, drawing them together brings us to the conclusion that a flourishing life, a “life to the full”, is participating in God’s purposes for creation, which entails fashioning it as God’s “kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.” We live excellently and flourish when, as Christians, we inhabit God’s story for creation.
When we orientate our lives to a particular goal or end, it begins to shape the narrative of our lives, and, as we find our place in that narrative, we find meaning and purpose in life. In a slightly convoluted sentence, MacIntyre observes, ‘it is because we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out that the form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others.’ More simply, we are ‘storytelling beings.’ As we recognise our place in God’s story, and inhabit the on-going narrative of God’s interaction with His creation, then we can begin to make sense of life, finding meaning and purpose in our actions. Whose story are we in? What story are our lives telling? As Christians we ought to be narrating the story where all creation is ‘flourishing in all its richness as it finds itself at home with itself by God dwelling in it.’ Our lives should tell the story of God’s reconciliation and restoration of all creation.
We began by asking “what makes us happy?” and this has led us to consider further questions about living fulfilled and flourishing lives. I think these are good questions to ask. Perhaps in churches we don’t spend enough time considering how we can help people to flourish. There’s much more to be figured out when it comes to a flourishing life – how we bring about a sense of shalom or wholeness to our relationships and communities; how we can proclaim good news for the poor, bind up broken hearts, and set the oppressed free; and how we can follow the voice of the one who gives life and life to the full. However, perhaps the first step is, as I’ve tried to show, to understand the Christian life as more than just the state of one’s soul or the promise of a good future. Instead we would do well to realise that it is intimately bound up with our present responsibility to inhabit the story of God that seeks the flourishing of all creatures and all creation.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.1.
 Jean Vanier, Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle, 3.
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.7.
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.7. and Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, 192-195.
 James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King, 13.
 Vanier, Made for Happiness, 181.
 Vanier, Made for Happiness, 194.
 Smith, Awaiting the King, 51.
 Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference, 11.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 246.
 Sandel, Justice, 221.
 Volf and Croasmun, For the Life of the World, 70-71.