What is the meaning or purpose of life? Some say that the purpose of every single person’s life is to attain happiness. It’s hard to argue that point since I don’t know anyone who would say that they don’t want to be happy. You always hear parents say, “I just want little Suzie to be happy” or “I don’t care what Johnny does, as long as he is happy.” Even the person who says they want to be unhappy is really saying that to be unhappy would make them happy. It seems undeniable that everyone wants to be happy, but what do we mean by happiness?
Here are some quotes from people about what happiness is:
“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.”
“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”
“Happiness is good health and a bad memory.”
“It isn’t necessary to be rich and famous to be happy. It’s only necessary to be rich.”
“Money can’t buy happiness; it can, however, rent it.”
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.”
“In Hollywood, if you don’t have happiness you send out for it.”
“Happiness is a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion.”
“A man doesn’t know what happiness is until he’s married. By then it’s too late.”
“To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”
Joking aside, a common definition of happiness is “a sense of pleasurable satisfaction.” It’s a pleasant feeling that is largely dependent upon your circumstances. We feel happy when we watch a good movie, play a sport well, or receive a compliment. This kind of happiness is transitory. It doesn’t last; it comes and goes and is heavily dependent on your circumstances.
But this definition of happiness, “a sense of pleasurable satisfaction,” is recent and quite different from the meaning of happiness that dominated western civilization until about 100 years ago. When our ancestors spoke of happiness, they typically meant something like the following: “a life of virtue characterized by wisdom, love, and goodness.”
It is a state of reaching the perfect good of man. Happiness was the ultimate goal for every person because it was thought to be the perfect good for a person, and what person doesn’t want the perfect good? This contrasts sharply with the modern version of happiness.
In the history of the Christian church, one of the greatest philosophers and theologians was Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century. Using the traditional definition of happiness, “the state of the perfect good of man,” Aquinas tried to figure out what things make us ultimately happy. What are the good things that constitute the perfect good of man?
Aquinas considered 8 candidates for what makes us happy. He ranked the 8 candidates in a countdown from what he considered to be the most foolish to the most wise, so as we proceed, we will move from the worst candidates for happiness to the best candidates. In part 2 of this series, the countdown begins!