Happiness isn’t everything (Part Two)

The other day I wrote a piece on happiness, on how transient and subjective it is, and how it therefore makes a poor measure for determining the worth of a thing.

(In that case, I was mostly referring to the ‘thing’ of reproductive technologies – efforts that aim to make people happy by making them parents, or by producing for them children who are healthier or otherwise more desirable than they might have been.)

Of course, there are countless such ‘things’ in life, and it can be dangerous to allow their potential for making us happy to overshadow their worth on other counts. When we do that, we run the risk of hurting others to help ourselves, or even harming our own long-term interests in favor of the short-term.

But I think there’s a more important tendency to think about here. As bad as it can be to use happiness to measure the worth of a thing, it’s much worse (and it can be more consequential) to use happiness to measure the worth of a life.

We see this happen all the time: People advocate for abortion because they think death is better than the unhappiness of poverty and single parenthood. Parents choose abortion because they think death is better than the unhappiness of disability. Teens and adults choose suicide because they think death is better than the unhappiness they’re struggling through. People advocate for physician-assisted suicide because they think a swift death is better than the unhappiness of a lingering decline.

But worth isn’t as tidy as that.

There’s so much more to life than happiness. There’s the good we can do, the witness we can be, the lessons we can learn, the impact we can have on others. There are glimpses of beauty on gray days. There are small, silly joys in dark times and there are hard truths that steel us for the work ahead. There is mercy to be given and received.

You can pursue happiness your whole life – pleasurable things, delicious food, attractive company, exciting experiences, exotic surroundings – and wind up hollow and disappointed in the end. You can live a charmed, healthy life and still miss out on so much.

Alternately, you can live a life of service and sacrifice – experiencing plentiful hardship and little happiness as we would think of it – and wind up satisfied. (Think of the lives of so many of the saints.) You can live through illness and injury and still love your life.

That last point was pounded home to me by a recent Catholic Review article on Maryland’s physician-assisted suicide legislation. The article describes the testimony of a woman named Sheryl Grossman, who has a rare condition that has inhibited her growth and made her prone to cancer.

Ms. Grossman “recounted how as she was undergoing treatment at a Baltimore hospital for her seventh cancer, a lymphoma that had metastasized, a physician who was a department head entered her room.

‘She said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this anymore . . . You have been through so much. You can stop at any time; it’s OK. We can simply turn off the machines or increase your pain meds. It won’t take long; you’re 37 pounds.””

Ms. Grossman objected. “I gave my last conscious energy to trying to scream, ‘No,’ and to trying to get her out of my room… I love my life.”

Whether we’re talking about the beginning of life or its end, we have to dispose of the shallow notion that what really matters in life is happiness (and health). Life is so much bigger than that. The human mind and soul are so much more capable than a simple happiness measure can gauge.

The other day I argued that “Happiness is like a cloud at sunset: bright and colorful for a moment. It is constantly changing form. It swells with beauty, increases in wonder – and then dissipates into the dark night.” That is indeed how I see happiness (and that sunset) – as beautiful and worthwhile. But I see beauty and worth in that dark night too. I see them in the fog, in the drizzle, in the downpour. I see them in the storm, and I wonder at its anguish.



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Julie Walsh

Julie Walsh

Julie Walsh is a married, stay-at-home-mother to four young children. Before her oldest was born in 2010, she worked for five years at the Maryland Catholic Conference as Associate Director for Social Concerns and three years in the U.S. General Services Administration's Office of Inspector General.

A blogger for the Catholic Review, Julie holds a degree in political science and German from Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg. She and her family are parishioners of St. Peter the Apostle Church in Libertytown.