Is happiness really attainable? It is a question many have sought to answer—debated in philosophy halls, whispered about at slumber parties, promised in innumerable marketing campaigns, and particularly pondered at the turn of a new year. Our countless approaches to pursuing happiness are as diverse as our many definitions of the word. But what if the attainability of happiness is intimately connected to our answer to another question? Namely, what is the source of your greatest enjoyment in life? In other words, could there be a connection between the imagination with which you see the world and your capacity to experience happiness?
In a significant study, Armand Nicholi, professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University, compared the life and work of Sigmund Freud to that of C.S. Lewis.(1) Each cultural giant was recognized for the remarkable accuracy with which he observed human emotion and experience. And yet, each man defined and experienced happiness in strikingly different manners, through radically different imaginations.
Freud's experience and understanding of happiness emerged as fundamental to his materialist understanding of the world. He observed happiness to be "a problem of satisfying a person's instinctual wishes."(2) Consequently, the possibility of attaining happiness was met with pessimism. Freud saw that the human appetite is never fully satisfied. His observation is not without merit. Happiness, defined in such terms, is problematic, if at the same time, the goal is to achieve any sort of lasting happiness. Money may be able to achieve one instinctual wish, and yet instinctual wishes ebb and flow with perpetually changing appetites. The average U.S. citizen's buying power has doubled during the last four decades, yet studies report that the average American is not any happier, but in fact, less happy than reported in studies conducted forty years earlier. Sadly, Freud's life itself reflected his definition of happiness. His letters were increasingly filled with pessimism and depression, even mentioning drug use as the only effective mood-lifter he could find.
"The Happy Life," by Alice E. Job, pen, black ink, and watercolor, 253 x 183 mm
What makes C.S. Lewis a fascinating point of comparison is that like Freud, he too, was intensely pessimistic about the possibilities of happiness early in life. And yet as emphasized by many biographers and close friends, his life was profoundly transformed in his early thirties, following a dramatic shift in vision. With an imagination far different than one charged with materialism, Lewis reasoned, "What does not satisfy when we find it, must not be the thing we were desiring."(3) Happiness, for Lewis, could not ultimately be met in the material. As he found himself embodying an imagination shaped by something beyond the material, Lewis first thought he was coming to a place, an idea, and found instead that he came to a Person, one within the material world and also beyond and behind it. In fact, it was the surprise of finding a person that first redefined the notion of happiness for him—happiness from within this source of joy that marked his life even during times of pain and loss.
In this new year of potential promise, ultimate sources of happiness may be as worth considering as each possible option or hopeful resolution. The psalmist writes of a creator as a source within and beyond the material, "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand." There may well be a connection between our capacity for happiness and the imagination with which our lives operate. In the Christian imagination, Christ himself stands in flesh and bone that your joy may be transformed by the present and enduring kindness of God.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Armand Nicholi, The Question of God, (The Free Press: New York, 2002).
(2) Ibid, 100.
(3) C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim's Regress, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1992), 123.