In writing about happiness, I learned a great many things. Catholics believe in the compatibility of faith and reason, and I’ve seen this evident in the compatibility of moral theology and positive psychology. Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that focuses on happiness, positive emotion, flow in activity, positive relationships and resilience. It is an empirical and scientific approach to happiness. Positive psychologists found that many of the core moral teachings of the Christian faith (such as forgiveness, serving others) promote happiness (see In Focus, Pages 9-12).
Why is it that some people become pessimistic in the face of suffering and others are resilient? Part of the answer lies in how one thinks about the situation. When times are tough, pessimists think, “This terrible thing is going to last forever, this ruins everything, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The Christian with the theological virtue of hope is an optimist with the resources to endure and embody resilience in the face of suffering. Theological hope has as its object the eternal happiness of heaven to be achieved with God’s help. In the face of even the worst trials, the hope-filled Christian can say, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away” (Rv 21:4).
No evil we suffer can ruin everything, since the hope of heaven can never be stolen away. Even grievous sin does not destroy the hope of heaven, for as long as life endures, we can accept God’s invitation to repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Finally, there is always “something we can do about it” as Christians. We can unite ourselves with the sufferings of Jesus: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). The “optimistic explanatory style” advocated by positive psychologists is embedded in Christians’ theological beliefs.
A similar overlap between positive psychology and Catholic practice is found in the importance of giving thanks. A common and simple way to boost happiness suggested in positive psychology is the “three good things exercise.” At the end of the day, write down whatever three things went well that day. If this is done regularly, a person becomes more aware of the good things that are embedded in daily living. A study found that among depressed patients, 94 percent found relief from consistent use of the exercise.
The Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving, is a standing invitation to call to mind and have gratitude for the gifts found in our daily lives. In the words of Scripture, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:16-18). Each Mass is a chance to “count one’s blessings.” Faith and reason — moral theology and positive psychology — work together for human happiness.
Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University.