We all want to become happier, but how?
That’s the question Dr. Christopher Kaczor addressed in his lecture at Ave Maria University on March 20, 2015. Looking through the lens of positive psychology, he offered five ways to increase your happiness: Experiencing positive emotion, being engaged in activity, forming strong relationships with those around you, contributing to a meaningful project or endeavor, and achieving your goals.
Kaczor went on to address the question: Do Christian beliefs and practices contribute to or undermine happiness as understood in positive psychology? For each of the five elements listed above, he found that, far from undermining happiness naturally understood, Christianity enhances it.
“For Jesus,” Kaczor noted, “the most important thing of all is loving God and loving our neighbor. This is what everything boils down to.” Because emotions are contagious, he said, the Christian can love his neighbor by fostering positive emotion. In that way, he makes the lives of those around him better. On the other hand, the Christian loves God by obeying his commands. In the garden, God commanded Adam to be active, to cultivate the earth, to “be engaged,” Kaczor said. So in the Christian worldview, he pointed out, “we have an obligation to be engaged.” And as far as relationships go, the mandate that Christians love everyone—even their enemies—only “multiplies the opportunities for happiness,” he said.
If positive psychology and Christianity are in such harmony as regards happiness, then why do we even need Christianity? What does Christianity add to the idea of happiness that positive psychology lacks?
Kaczor named four things in reply: Death, the ordering of goods, guilt and knowledge. Christianity offers an explanation of death and the afterlife, an explanation which positive psychology lacks. In positive psychology, after death there is nothing—no more positive emotion, no more relationships, no more engagement. Christianity also offers a way to rank goods in the cases in which they are in conflict with one another: love of God is first. As far as guilt, Positive psychology has no way to remove it. “There is an actual deficit in our love of God and neighbor,” Kaczor said, “and positive psychology can’t take that away.” Finally, positive psychology isn’t capable of giving deep knowledge. It is “limited to those things that are empirically verifiable, but the human mind desires to know…things beyond.”
So if Christianity has such a comprehensive view of happiness, then why are some Christians unhappy?
First, Kaczor answered, not all Christians live the message of Jesus. “It won’t work if you don’t put it into practice,” he said. Second, he pointed out that happiness is partially genetic. Some men naturally have bubbly temperaments, while others are born more brooding. Third, we are “bodily beings” so our “happiness is tied to bodily health.” No one is in perfect health. Fourth and finally, “all of us have an imperfect relationship to God,” he said. Insofar as we lack perfect union with God, “our happiness is always in this life going to be imperfect to a greater or lesser degree.”
Dr. Christopher Kaczor is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University and Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has authored eleven books, the latest of which is The Seven Big Myths about Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife.