How to Be Happy
A Short Meditation on Why We Do Anything (and How We Should)
“Μακάριόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον διδόναι ἢ λαμβάνειν
(It is more blessed to give than to receive)” – Jesus of Nazareth
I want to offer you a simple idea. The idea is given a perfect and memorable distillation in the above quotation, from the man who stands at the center of history. While you may debate me over his status as God and Lord, I find very few people who wish to contest his standing as a great teacher.
As you know, I am enamored of words and this quest extends beyond my native tongue. I give you the quote first in Greek because I want to draw our attention to the word “Μακάριόν” (makarion) which is often translated in English Bibles as “blessed”. “Blessed” has a decidedly antiquated feel in English, to the point where we make it two syllables and add a grave accent on the second. Frankly, it sounds a little silly to the modern ear (of course, I like it because I was born old).
The form of the Greek word in the above passage is just the appropriate declension of “μακάριος” (makarios). Now, it’s hard to accurately translate makarios, but I think the best English word is actually “happy”. It’s perhaps more precise to render Jesus’s saying as:
It will make you happier to give than to receive.
I say makarios is hard to translate fully because the version I just gave sounds a little mundane and platitudinous, when in fact it’s a truth of such profound import that I think we may never grasp the fullness of it in this life.
One of the best comparison points for makarios in Greek literature is in Aristotle’s Ethics. Without getting into a debate that textual critics have been having for years, Aristotle uses the term in Book X in place of the term he had been previously using to describe the supreme goal of human life, “εὐδαιμονία”, which is often put in modern translations as “human flourishing”. But older versions often just used “happy”. At any rate, they appear to be synonyms (with some distinctions) in Aristotle’s thought.
What the modern translators of Aristotle are trying to get at with “human flourishing” and what Bible translators are going for with “blessed” is an idea of happiness that transcends the fleeting nature of what we usually call happiness. Makarios is something deep and abiding. Rich with meaning, the thing which all philosophy and art and living aim at. Exalted Goodness, Rightness, a state of being that perhaps we can only speak around and never fully define. Nonetheless, it’s something for which we’re all striving, with varying degrees of wisdom and success. In the New Testament it means a state of being something like, to put it somewhat colloquially, “the best you can imagine”.
I submit now a presupposition:
Everything we do, we do with the aim of achieving happiness.
Perhaps you might make a quarrel against this, but in a humorous irony I might question what your aim is in arguing with it. Would winning that argument make you happy? Many people destroy relationships under this faulty notion. Without quibbling about the inexhaustible well of fine shades of meaning here, let’s proceed with my axiom.
The modern world almost universally tells us that what will make us happy is acquisition of some kind. The raison d'être of modern life seems to be to receive. To go further even, to take. Just think of that dehumanizing label given us by advertisers: “consumer”. As if we were mere locusts. Alas, it is a great sadness that many of us have allowed ourselves to become just that, we but hope not irredeemably.
“He who dies with the most toys wins” is meant to be a dark joke, not wise counsel to be pursued.
Selfishness is a great plague on the human spirit. This is what Jesus is addressing when he teaches self-denial. This doesn’t mean self-condemnation, as some would caricature it. A life of self-denial is simply one in which getting what you want is not the axis on which the world spins. You may get what you want, you may not, but you no longer make that the condition for your well-being. Ideally, you abandon the concern altogether and seek to give of yourself and what you have as much as possible.
Let me caution that I’m not suggesting what has been sagely termed “pathological altruism”. We are not to exhaust ourselves for no reason or to give all to an unworthy pursuit or embrace literal and spiritual poverty as a virtue. That’s all bad stuff that we should dispense with. What we should do is identify what pursuits and actions are capital “G” Good and give ourselves as fully as possible to them.
I’ll try to bring this down to earth a bit now. And I want to say that I by no means do any of this perfectly, and in some domains not even well (yet I hope). If I am so bold to give advice, it’s spoken to you as an equal and to myself as much as to you.
Getting to the subtitle of this short piece: Why do anything? I laid this out in italics a moment ago - for happiness - but the reason I also gave the epigraph is because to a large degree we are all deluded about how to achieve the state of happiness we’re seeking. And here I think we can think a bit more about the wisdom of Jesus, regardless of how we relate to him in other ways.
So the questions we should be asking when we’re doing anything are: what am I giving here? Am I giving as much or more than I am receiving? Am I striving for this regardless of the comparative value of my giving? What I mean by the last question is that what we give is relative. Jesus tells the story of a widow left without any inheritance or means of support who gave her only two pennies to the temple offering. Jesus says that she gave more than any of the wealthy people whose offering was, in monetary terms, exceedingly more valuable. She gave all she had to give.
At this point I want to assert something: What is most valuable to and from any given human being is time and attention. Charitable financial giving is a fine thing and commanded in many religions, not least my own. But I say again, what is most valuable for any person is time and attention. Our lives consist of moments in which we focus, think, act, and so on. “Pay attention” is close to a literal phrase. We might say that what we spend our time on we pay for with a priceless currency. Our moments are unique and irretrievable. What the people we love want most from us is our attention and presence. That’s why kids with workaholic parents can’t be bought any material thing to make up for the mother’s or father’s absence.
While we do well to take this seriously, I don’t encourage neuroticism about it. For the time being, I work much more than I’d like and don’t spend enough time with my wife and daughter. But when I am with them, I endeavor (and fail sometimes, let’s be appropriately gracious with ourselves) to really be there. Eliminate distractions, put off thoughts of tomorrow and any future worries.
You know something is worthwhile if you can, with clear conscience, dedicate your whole self to it in the moment. And in an ongoing way as well, if appropriate. Let’s just take a couple examples and you can extrapolate them out to whatever you are called to in your particular life.
We’ve dealt a little with family life, but if you’re with friends, treat them the same way. Put your phone away. Look them in the eye.
If you’re reading a book, give it all the attention you can muster. In this way you do honor to the author and enter into a relationship with them, unrestrained by time and space. We come here again to relativity, perhaps easier to admit with a work of literature than with another live person. I may never repay in attention what Shakespeare gives me in King Lear. For myself, I can give nothing of even remotely similar value to what I receive from the Bible. And yet I try. I give my time and attention in sincere faith and pray that God accepts it (He does).
If you’re a research scientist, or a dress-maker, or a cook, or a mechanic, or a competitive equestrian, do likewise. Throw yourself into it with abandon. Give and give and give of yourself as much as you can. What you will find, I know from experience and from wise teaching, is that you will be blessed in return, you’ll flourish. You will be happy. You will find a joy in life that is independent of your circumstances, because you’ve ceased to really care about them anyway.
If you lose your life in giving, you’ll find it again, infused with a rapturous joie de vivre. That’s not hyperbole, but we should also be careful not to grow attached to these mountain-top moments and seek them, lest our giving become a covert attempt to take. Jesus also said to give without any thought of return. It’s a bit paradoxical from our normal selfish viewpoint, but the only way to really get anything good is to let go of trying to get it.
Let me attempt to put all this in a few phrases:
Treat everything you do as if it is the most important thing you could possibly be doing. You’ll soon find that it is. Give everything you’ve got to it. That’s purpose. That’s the path to true happiness that everyone is seeking. We just have to remember this and walk in it. Simple, if not always easy.