Happiness: The Secret

It is said that someone once asked St. Ignatius, "What would you do if you knew that the world was going to come to an end tomorrow?"

St. Ignatius replied,"I would go on doing what I'm doing now."

I've always felt that this might be the secret to happiness. I can't tell you how many people I know who can't be happy in Abilene because they have to be in the mountains or by an ocean. They can only be really happy, really at peace, somewhere else. I think most of the world is that way. Happiness is never about where you are right now. Happiness is always somewhere else. So if it were your last day on earth you wouldn't stay put, you'd try to jet off to some exotic spot and drink a Corona. The good life is always there. Never here.

But what would it mean to say, truly, that if today was your last day you'd get up, just like you always get up, and simply go about your business? It would mean, I think, that you'd figured out a way--by the grace of God--to experience bliss wherever you are. You'd have solved the puzzle, passed the test, discovered the secret. There is no need for flight. Grace is right here, right now.

I think about this all the time and I actually spend a great deal of effort working on exactly this. I want to be able to say with St. Ignatius, "I would go on doing what I'm doing now." I think that's the secret to happiness.

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16 thoughts on “Happiness: The Secret”

  1. Of course, asked the same question, Luther (a contemporary of Ignatius) said that he would plant a tree, a gesture of cosmic hope as well as personal peace.

    Pascal has some good pensées on this topic.  For example: "Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so."

    More famously: "All human misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room."

    But my favourite deconstructs even blessedly blogging - and commenting! -  about happiness: "If our condition were truly happy, we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it."

  2. On second thought, in that third quote Pascal was not actually making the point I attributed to him - but he should have been! - particularly given his consistent critique of "diversions."  So what he should have said is: "If our condition were truly happy, we should not need to divert ourseves by [not from] thinking about it."

  3. Hmm. I get St Ignatius' (and your) point, that we shouldn't be looking for happiness "somewhere over the rainbow" or whatever. However, within the overall context of "what I'm doing now" there are things to which I'd give greater priority if the world were ending tomorrow. I might decide to give myself the rest of the day off from work and spend it with my family, for example. But then, I'm not a celibate religious!

  4. A Corona on the beach? Surely not. Maybe an imperial stout somewhere in the mountains. . .

    No, I actually think about this a lot. I tend to think happiness (or joy) is less about conforming circumstances to fit a vision and more about conforming a vision to fit circumstances. And here, of course, I am reminded of Brother Lawrence. 

  5. I tend to think that if it were my last day on Earth, I would definitely want to spend it with my family in joy and bliss and total appreciation for our time together. Great read. Thanks.

  6. Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

    I like Hawthorne's diagnosis here, but I'm not sure about his prescription.  Perhaps it's when we're discovering, or contributing, or mastering, or reconciling that the elusive butterfly alights.  I think happiness should always be an outcome, not a goal.

  7. Richard, Do you have a source for that story? A fellow Jesuit used the story on BBC radio a while back and when we heard it we all mocked him for making up stories -- none of us had heard of such a story attributed to Ignatius. If you know where it comes from I'd be delighted to eat some humble pie.

  8. I read it in a book recently (I'll have to check which one) but I don't think the story was referenced back to Ignatius in a footnote or anything. It just might be a Jesuit anecdote.

  9. Further, I would argue that Ignatius (or whoever said it) was not merely happy where ever he was at, but was living a life of clear obedience to his vocation.  So many of us are unhappy where we are at because we are not where we should be.

  10. I think that is definitely an important frame to put around this. What I wonder is how vocation looks like in late modern capitalism where people have to work wherever they can find a job. Vocation and calling get circumscribed by economic pressures.

  11. It seems to me that so many people search for happiness or joy but are let down or not ever fully satisfied. I've often pondered why this is the case, and I've come to the conclusion that happiness cannot be aimed at because it is a product of a much bigger source. I think people should aim at the source of joy and by doing so receive it. I am a believer and would encourage people to look to Christ, and in scripture I would reference John 15, in the story of the Vine and the Branches, where the Word speaks of joy being complete for a person by he or she being in Christ and remaining in His love, where true joy is found.

    I so enjoy your posts, by the way! I always find them insightful and inspirational.

  12. Meditating on this subject this morning...  I read and liked what you said here, Gregory:  "happiness/joy is about conforming a vision to fit circumstances."  It got me thinking.  The two big ideas that emerged, for me -- 1) The security and joy of knowing that God's love is a given, no matter what.  2) In that context of being eternally and unconditionally loved, we are in a process of growth and change (conformed to Christ's image, progressive sanctification, whatever you want to call it.)  As the Apostle Paul wrote in Phil. 3, we have not arrived, but press on toward the goal of the high calling in Christ Jesus.  Sometimes that's a painful process.  Not fun.  But we know that the refining fire is for our good.  There is a sense of joy to be derived from that knowledge, I think.

    Incidentally, I'm currently reading this #1 bestseller by Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project).  I do not relate to the author very well, so I can't say that I'm a big fan of her philosophy.  Too disconnected from my core beliefs/values, I guess.  Thanks for your comment.  It helped me to sort out my own thoughts on the subject.  ~Peace~

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