The pursuit of true, God-centered happiness

Happiness is one of those elusive goals. We think we know what happiness looks like, but often, when we arrive on its doorstep, we suddenly realize happiness exists somewhere else, just beyond wherever it is we currently find ourselves. Does happiness keep moving on us, or is it something a little more complicated?

Father Jonathan Morris, a Fox News analyst who is also parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City, gets to the heart of the matter in his new book, “God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help” (Harper One, $24.99). Why a book on happiness? He recently answered that question and more in an email interview with Our Sunday Visitor.

Happy BookOur Sunday Visitor: Typically you focus on pressing ethical, social and political issues of the day. Why did you decide to write about happiness?

Father Jonathan Morris: Even if we understand all of the ethical and social implications of what’s happening in the world, this won’t answer our deepest questions about life. It won’t fill our souls with the peace, serenity and happiness that we all are looking for. I wrote this book because I know God wants genuine happiness for us, and he is on our side in its pursuit.

OSV: How can we believe, in a world with so much pain — from the mom who loses a child to cancer to poverty and war — that God wants us to be happy?

Father Morris: I can’t tell you why God allows children to die of terrible illness or earthquakes to ravage whole towns, but I have seen people suffer terribly and find genuine happiness, serenity and peace in the midst of their pain. On the other hand, I have seen people showered with every material luxury and wallow in their own misery. The lesson is this: No human being and no thing can give or steal spiritual joy. No matter our present circumstances, genuine happiness is at our reach because Jesus came “that we might have life, and life in abundance.”

Here’s something else to consider about God and suffering: Most of our deepest pain is the result of the misuse of our freedom. God gave us a wonderful gift of being able to choose the good, and when we abuse this gift and instead choose selfishness, the consequences hurt. I don’t think we would want God to intervene every time we or someone else chooses badly. Being human is wonderfully and terribly consequential. Getting right with God — that is, turning our will over to him — is the right place to start on our search for happiness.

OSV: Is part of the problem our view of happiness? Our culture tends to equate happiness with a great job, a big house, nice vacations. You’re not talking about that kind of happiness, are you? 

Father Morris: Yes, and no. It’s not that a great job or sandy beaches don’t make us happy. They do. But they don’t satisfy our deepest desires. God created a wonderful world for us to enjoy, and when we taste it we are, in fact, tasting the goodness of God. The beauty, truth and goodness we find in creation can point us to the source of it all, in whom we will find “beatitude.” Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one perfect definition of real happiness.

OSV: Does our view of God — either as stern taskmaster or loving parent — color our view of happiness and how it unfolds in our lives?

Father Morris: The best view of God is the one in the Bible — the whole Bible. We can’t ignore God’s hand of justice for Sodom and Gomorrah, nor should we forget Jesus’ mercy for the woman caught in adultery or the healing of the blind, lame and lonely. If we read the whole Bible as a love story between God and us, his very imperfect children, it makes sense. As the perfect Father and Mother, God disciplines us, forgives us and bestows gifts on us, all with the same intention: that we might mature into the happy and holy spiritual adults he created us to be.

OSV: In your book, you talk about the fact that if we don’t see God as capable of intervening in our lives, we figure we have to take everything on ourselves. How do we reach that place of trust that God is in control?

Father Morris: We are very good at being spiritual control freaks, aren’t we? If we don’t learn to trust with every fiber of our being, we will convert our spiritual life into one more thing we must line up, get in order, so as to satisfy all of our urgent needs. Trust involves letting go and letting God. We let go of our fear, anxiety and shame and move forward in accordance with the truth that God will be faithful to his promises to bring us to life in abundance, if we let him. Trust — what we can also call the theological virtue of “hope” — heals our memory of past failure and fear and launches us into joyful, God-driven action. In the book I spend quite a bit of time on how we can prepare our soul for God to infuse in it the grace of hope.

OSV: I have a friend who is truly happy, despite many struggles. She truly believes her life is in God’s hands and everything is happening to teach her something, lead her somewhere. It’s an amazing thing to see, but so hard to live. You talk about shallowness, fear, self-centeredness as keeping us in a place of doubt. Why is it so much easier to live in that dark place than to build our lives on faith and hope?

Father Morris: My guess is that your friend is humble, even before she is happy. Humble people are the happiest people. They are others-centered. They breathe in gratitude for what they already have, and they don’t brood over the past. We are so blessed to know people like that.

OSV: How can parents help their children cultivate positive faith-based attitudes that will become the foundation for true happiness throughout their lives?

Father Morris: What I am most grateful for from my parents is their example of living by Godly priorities. This doesn’t mean they were perfect or that I always agreed with them. As a teenager, I rarely did! But even then I always knew why they were doing what they were doing. I knew deep down that their choices were based on what they believed to be God’s will for our family. That goes a long way.

OSV: How can longtime doubters and cynics begin to make that paradigm shift? It can be tough to retrain a lifetime of thinking we’re doing this all on our own.

Father Morris: We believe in miracles! And maybe the biggest miracle is when someone recognizes the need for one. If we have tried to make it on our own for many years and now find ourselves open to God being part of our lives, bringing us true happiness, we are already well on our way!

OSV: Throughout the book you talk about prayer, and yet I think many of us let regular prayer go by the wayside because it seems “unproductive” by society’s standards. How does prayer help us reach that place of true happiness?

Father Morris: Prayer makes sense not because we can produce things from it, but rather because it is the way God has chosen to do miracles within us. Jesus prayed. He taught us to pray. He enjoins us to pray today. I spend quite a bit of space in this book describing and teaching prayer because it is a lost art. It’s an art not because it is difficult, but rather because it is so personal and we can actually get better at it. We can learn to open our heart, silence our soul, and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. We can learn to dialogue with the Holy Spirit and become his partner in the adventure of the Christian life.

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York. Her latest book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha, $16.95).