What Will Make Us Truly Happy?

When you think about it, everything we do aims at one thing: happiness. Many things can make us happy to some degree, but we are always looking for that which will truly satisfy us. We want something that will give a lasting joy and peace that leaves no regret.

In spite of the fact that happiness is the goal, happiness generally eludes us. We pour our energy into a variety of things, hoping they will make us happy, but they always disappoint. In the United States, people in the tens of millions turn to anxiety and depression medication to help them cope with life. I am not judging those who choose to do that (it’s sometimes necessary, in my view). I merely point this out to demonstrate that happiness seems to elude us.

So, what is it that makes us truly happy? In spite of the fact that happiness is what we want, it’s surprising how little time we actually spend thinking about it. Ancient philosophers spent a lot of time thinking about this question. They did not want to pursue happiness haphazardly. They wanted to know what would really make people happy and how.

The Christian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas summarized this ancient thought in his famous book, Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology. In the second section of the first part of the work, in the second question (yeah, it’s not exactly what we could a “summary”), he discusses the question, what makes people happy? Aquinas helps us think about this question by first helping us see where we will not find happiness. Here’s what he says.

1. We won’t find happiness in money. Why? Because we seek money in order to be able to get something else. If we seek money to purchase something else, then money cannot be that which would make us happy. To discover what happiness is, we would have to ask, what do we want to do with the money? What do we think that it buys us?

2. We won’t find happiness in popularity. Aquinas notes that happiness is in us. It is a state in which we exist. But popularity and fame is something that is outside of us. In addition, he notes that popularity is fickle and fame and honor often wrongly assigned. So, happiness does not consist in popularity or honor.

3. We won’t find happiness in power. Power is not an end in itself. Power exists for the sake of doing something. It is what Aquinas would call a “principle.” In addition, people can use power for good or evil. Evil use of power will not bring happiness, but a good use of power can bring some happiness. Consequently, it is the good in the use of power that tends toward happiness and not power in itself.

4. We won’t find happiness in bodily pleasure. Those who think it does fail to notice that human beings consist of body and soul. The body can experience pleasure that brings regret to the soul (and sometimes to the body, too!). Similarly, the soul can experience great satisfaction even without these bodily pleasures. So, happiness cannot consist in bodily pleasures.

5. The soul itself is not the source of happiness. This is a little more complicated. Aquinas says that the soul is that which possesses and attains. So, it cannot itself be the source of happiness. Happiness must lie in that which the soul possesses and attains. On the other hand, we may say that the soul is the instrument of happiness when it is in a right disposition to possess and attain happiness.

The problem with our pursuit of happiness, according to Aquinas, is that we ultimately try to find happiness in things that are limited. Our souls desire something that is infinite and supremely good. This cannot be found in any created thing.

Now the object of the will, i.e., of man’s appetite, is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will save the universal good. This is to be found not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation.

It is in God alone that we experience and enjoy the supreme good. Enjoyment of God is what makes us truly happy.


Photo by Nghia Le on Unsplash


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