Religion and Happiness

I am doubly disadvantaged in a debate about happiness and religion and what, if anything, the two have to do with one another. First off, the term religion may cover a lot of very different forms of organized human activity, and I don’t know much about most of them. I know something about some forms of Christianity. I know a little about Judaism. I know a little about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian syncretic religious practices, a tiny bit about a handful of Native American religious practices, and a very little bit about very small areas of Islam. I don’t know how to give a properly philosophical characterization of the nature of religion that seems applicable to all of these. And so, largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices. The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness.

Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.

Now, happiness, as Philippa Foot once put it, “is a protean concept, appearing now in one way and now in another.”[1] So, having first restricted our constituency to mature and sane human beings, and having restricted my attention to the span between early adulthood and such time at the end of life as might be happy, it helps to try to wrestle happiness into a more definite sort of shape.

These days it is common among Anglophone philosophers to distinguish accounts of happiness that treat happiness as a psychological concept—perhaps having to do with positively charged emotional states, or with an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life, or with a tendency to enjoy things, or with some favored combination of these—from accounts of happiness that stress human flourishing or thriving, which may or may not be associated with contentment or satisfaction, and need not involve any particularly sunny affective or emotional tone. Although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on. Suppose that I think that no one should be satisfied when much of her community is torn by violence and sunk in poverty. Flourishing, I think, will require engaging with my community in ways that are likely to be uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and possibly perilous as well. It could be objected that I have it all wrong about flourishing, but it is hard to deny that mine could be a good human life in the end—a life well-spent; a life well worth living. If so, then people can flourish without having a whole lot of feel-good.

In the more distant past, European philosophers have varied wildly in their accounts what happiness might be, on the understanding that happiness is supposed to serve as a name for what makes life good. Health, wealth, honor, sybaritic delight, ethically permissible satisfaction of all and only those of my desires that I welcome, internally peaceful and socially harmonious participation in pursuit of common good, faring well to exactly the extent to which I am acting well—all of these and more have been offered up as the kind of happiness that makes an adult human being’s life good.

Some will argue (with Aquinas and Augustine, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White) that health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight cannot possibly be the stuff of the kind of happiness that makes human life good. It has been common to insist that going for these things is a matter of failing to side with reason and become exactly like nonhuman animals. I think it’s a mistake to equate human sensuality with nonhuman animal experience. We should be so lucky! Our sensual lives are not easily separated from our lot as intellectual animals. Be that as it may, we are in the same boat with other animals in at least this sense: the goods of this world are transitory and contingent. According to authoritative sources that I respect, in seeking happiness, we humans seek something stable and lasting that cannot be taken from us.

As far as I know, when one is inclined to make this argument one discounts both a venerable Spartan sort of thought about it being a fine thing to go out in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, thereby securing one’s memory for all time, and also the less venerable idea that there’s a lot to be said for living fast and dying young. I am willing to bite those bullets.

Sticking to a different, venerable kind of thought, one might ask: What does it profit a man if he wins major athletic competitions (without doping), gains lucrative endorsements, fame, and ample opportunity for pleasure but loses his soul? The answer is supposed to be that it profits him not at all. But it is surely understandable that gaining what counts for someone as “the world” through sustained and persistent effort against significant odds will not look like nothing. And health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight have been human pursuits for a very long time.

The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning

While one formal characteristic of human life—that of desires and ends—prompts the anxiety of loss, we can see now how the other, rationality, renders us vulnerable to the anxiety of meaning. Rationality involves reflection on our ends that in turn can bring about the anxiety of meaning. In reflecting on them we may either approve or disapprove of them. We may, for example, take our ends to be valuable and thus delight in the bliss of pursuing conscious valuable life. But we may also fall into despair in realizing that ends we held valuable and labored to secure are in fact of no value. Thus, one may realize that a project one was committed to (e.g., promoting communism or nation-building), is, in fact, misguided and valueless; such realization can be devastating. However, such realizations do not in themselves constitute the anxiety of meaning. Rather than residing in the realization that one end or another has no value, the anxiety of meaning consists in recognizing that such realization is always a possibility; that just as I realize now that my enormous efforts to become a Sudoku champion were in vain because I see no value in being a Sudoku champion, similarly, it is always possible that I may realize that my other ends are of no value. Even worse, realizing we cannot ground values in reasons, leads us to recognize that value and worth cannot be secured and fortified; that it is always possible to lose sight of that which once seemed of worth to us. For, after all, rational justifications are finite, and if we are asked to provide them in support of the value we see in our ends, they will eventually give out and we are left without rational grounds to hold these ends valuable. Our very capacity to rationally reflect on the value of our ends, then, leads to the realization that our values are never fully grounded and secure.

If the story of Job symbolizes loss, Ecclesiastes epitomizes meaninglessness. When King Solomon lamented “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” he was a man with as much confidence, achievement and possession as one can hope for. Hence, clearly, he laments not the loss of that which he loves and values but rather the absence of worth and value; the waning and depletion of value from the world. In the absence of value, King Solomon asks “(w)hat profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” This question expresses the anxiety over whether what we toil for might be without worth at all, and therefore pointless.

So far we have seen that the anxieties of loss and meaning are bound up with our rational being; they are not mere accidents, but they are also not essential. They are, for lack of a better term, un-essential or un-rational aspects of human life; connected to our rationality through rationality’s negation—and hence internally linked to rationality and its intrinsic shortcomings. [1] With an understanding of the shared un-rational nature of these anxieties, we can now see how they relate deeply to one other: each anxiety both excludes the other and promises redemption from the other. A person agonizingly anxious of loss may envy her stoic friend who sees less value in his ends and consequently suffers less from the prospects of their loss. And vice versa, he who depressively conceives of no meaning in life may wish for his friend’s deep immersion in her values. Each sees hope in the condition of the other; the one wishes to value more, the other to value less, and we can imagine one oscillating between the two poles of anxiety in a wish to find the middle way between them. This is the doctrine of the mean in relation to the form of our practical life.

Accordingly, it appears, the human lot is at best to find the mean between these poles, or at least to oscillate gently between them. We may think about finding the right balance between the two anxieties as a virtue—a mean between two vices. But what assures us that we will not lose our grip of the mean and slip back to one of the extremes? Even in maintaining balance, we are vulnerable to the anxiety that nothing secures this balanced state; that it is forever subject to changes beyond our control. A famous Chasidic proverb by Rabi Nachman of Breslav goes “the whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.” If a man spends his life on a narrow bridge, leading nowhere (it is the entire world, after all), it appears that there is no better thing for him to do than to maintain balance and forever live in fear of falling down to the abyss of either of the anxieties. Is this truly the best we can hope for? Is there no way to transcend this precariousness human condition?

A final word about transcendence: although this study is limited to the examination of transcendence at a personal level, there is also support for the notion that it can occur at a collective level. Peter Berger (1967) made three observations that are relevant to the idea that transcendence is a native dimension of the human experience, individually and collectively. First, world-building is a biological imperative for the human person: “The world-building of man is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution.” Second, world-building by the individual man is never separated from society: “Man’s world-building activity is always a collective enterprise. Man’s internal appropriation of the world must also take place in a collectivity.” Third, in the process of world-building, “man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself.” I point this out here to show that there may be much more to transcendence when compared between the individual and collective levels; the potentially therapeutic outcomes of stabilizing one’s sense of self and making extraordinary connections within and beyond the self may exhibit phenomenal effects if the process is adopted organizationally, with due care to maintain the integrity of a person’s religious, cultural, and ethnic senses of identity. If, in future studies, transcendence can be identified more strongly as a positive predictor of resilience, it may play a role as a therapeutic mechanism, individually and perhaps even on a more communal level.

Transcendence in Resilient American POWs

What is it about some American service members that enable them to bounce back from something like a POW experience, which may include daily conditions like filth, disease, starvation, torture, murder, and unscrupulous behavior among fellow prisoners and guards? Is it possible to transcend those experiences and make meaning of them in ways that allow one to heal and move on? How does one survive these stressors and manage to do things well, like get married, have a family, and live a productive life for decades after the traumatic experience? This study explores these questions.

Transcendence is an under-appreciated aspect of human experience with potentially significant positive contributions to the study of “spiritual fitness” and resilience in the military (Mullen, 2011), two factors attributed to successful navigation of the military life cycle. Transcendence, as a possible influencer of resilience, can be tracked in various forms, including narrative. I propose that resilient American service members who survived and bounced back from something like a POW experience, and wrote about it later, left traces of transcendence in their stories, which can be studied.

I also propose that transcendence is native to the human experience and can be conceptualized as an experiential meaning-making process, rather than an event or state of being. In my model of transcendence there are at least two possible outcomes. The first outcome, stabilization of one’s sense of self, enables the person to more firmly root him or herself in a response to the question, “What am I?” The second outcome, extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, in space-time, gives the person coordinates in moral space and allows the person to draw from those coordinates in future situations, particularly those that might be morally challenging. Eight memoirs of American POWs from two time periods were analyzed: World War II and the Vietnam War. The memoirs were selected based on public availability and known resilience of POW survivors (no known attempt to commit suicide within five years of discharge).

Anti-transcendence, an “anti-process” and a contrary to transcendence, is a necessary conceptualization because both transcendent and anti-transcendent events are found in the human condition. Although failure to make meaning of personally relevant transcendent events does not necessarily carry negative consequences, failure to make meaning of personally relevant anti-transcendent events does carry a downside risk of destabilizing one’s sense of self and fracturing or disintegrating connections within and beyond oneself. Anti-transcendence as a possible precursor to destabilization of one’s sense of self, fracturing or severing of deep ties within and beyond the self, and as a possible catalyst to something like anomy (a form of meaninglessness), has received virtually no attention in the literature, yet has the potential to contribute to a larger discussion around related issues like moral injury, depression associated with PTSD, identity crises, and suicidal ideation. The figure below is a partial representation of my model of transcendence and anti-transcendence.

The results of this study challenge existing notions of transcendence as an event or state of being, and offer evidence of an alternative, trackable, conceptualization of transcendence. The study also offers a method to track transcendence in written narrative form, and to detect instances of both transcendence and anti-transcendence, as well as their outcomes. The resilient American service members in this study all appear to have processed transcendent and anti-transcendent events in ways that yielded patterned results, whether in regard to one’s sense of self or to extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Although resilience may not necessarily equal immunity to such symptoms as post-traumatic stress, transcendence and resilience together may be intertwined in ways that contribute to more robust coping or adaptive behavior, such as one of the memoirist’s decisions to tell his story and seek professional help for his PTSD symptoms after recognizing their persistence. The study of transcendence and its connection to resilience may also contribute to a broader concept of well-being, like the notions of human thriving or human flourishing.

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