Do you want to be happy?
It seems an absurd question; everyone wants to be happy, right? But many people see happiness as a bluebird that comes and lights upon them and bestows joy without any effort on the person’s part.
And yet it’s been the observation of many saints over the centuries that if you want to be happy, you have a big say in making it happen. And if you feel terribly unhappy, then that has something to do with you, too. Not with your actions, but with the state of your mind and your heart and your soul.
One of the reasons we’re all often unhappy is because we try to somehow make ourselves happy. There’s a substantial tradition behind this assumption, as indicated by the ever-growing self-help sections of libraries and bookstores. Do this, and you’ll be happy, they tell us. Get more sleep. Spend more time with your family. Don’t sweat the small things. Look inside yourself for peace. Meditate. Buy balloons.
And of course these self-help authors are all right…to a point. Meditation will indeed make us happier. Spending more time with our family will no doubt make us happier. But there’s something that’s still missing from their formulas: all of these activities need to be rooted somewhere, grounded in something that’s far bigger than any of the practices these books advocate. In short, what is missing is the first and best and biggest step: giving ourselves over to God.
Without that first step, we’ll always see true happiness as something elusive, something we must be constantly pursuing.
Saint John XXIII knew this. He kept decades of diaries in which he recorded his journey in the spirit, words that are as fresh and relevant to us today as they were when the future pope started them at the age of 14. “In his journal,” writes Donna Giaimo, FSP, “John lays bare his soul, recounting all with utter confidence in God’s continuous action in his life. John was undoubtedly gifted by nature with an easygoing personality, yet his writings also show that interior peace was the result of a journey marked by spiritual discipline, the recognition of selfish tendencies, and an obedience that gave the Holy Spirit freedom to work in him.”
And that’s the true path to happiness: stepping back from all the things we think we want, and giving the Holy Spirit room to work in our lives.
Pauline Books and Media has gathered some of John XXIII’s writings into a small volume in our Classic Wisdom Collection called The Secret to Happiness. Every page of this book glows with John’s experience of opening himself to God, and offers a roadmap for the rest of us.
O my Lord, I am back today to offer you the precious chalice of my soul, sanctified by your anointing. Fill it with your virtue as you so appointed the apostles, martyrs, and confessors. Make use of me in something good, noble, and great—for you, for your Church, and for souls. I live, I want to live, only for this.
The pope never once accuses the reader, but shares his own journey to happiness instead. And that alone is extraordinary: a pope, a saint, accusing himself of a lack of humility!
And I, such a great and exceedingly miserable sinner, think only of being pleased with myself and congratulating myself over good results, all for a little worldly honor. I cannot conceive even the holiest thought without interference from concerns about my own reputation with others. However much I adopt devotion and a spirit of charity and sacrifice, I can’t yearn for the purest ideal without the other “I” stepping in, wanting to show off, to be admired by those near and far, by the whole world if it were possible.
Most of us, supported by all the self-help material out there, focus on ourselves in our quest for happiness. I only have to improve myself, the common wisdom goes, to be happy. Lose weight. Get a promotion at work. Make more money. But when we step back from those thoughts, we’ll see how much they’re all centered on us. John discovered happiness by looking outside of himself—and straight into the eyes of God.
I must always regard myself in this state of a servant. Therefore I do not have one single moment free to wait on myself, to serve my pleasure, my vanity, etc. If I do, I am no better than a thief, because I am stealing time that is not my own; I am an unfaithful servant, a wicked servant unworthy of hire. Woe to me! Yet this is what I have done. What confusion and embarrassment I feel! So much pride, arrogance, and presumption, and I do not even know how to be a servant.
Christians, says John, were created to do good rather than destroy evil. And once we incorporate acts of goodness, thoughts of goodness, into our lives, then we’re going to start to experience happiness.
Peace is before all else an interior thing, belonging to the spirit, and its fundamental condition is a loving and filial dependence on the will of God.
Love is all; love is at the foundation of civilization; love is the basis of all that Christ came to declare to the world…. Without love you may obtain temporary successes, or victories won by force, but afterward, and very soon, all will fall to the ground.
And finally, The Secret to Happiness gives us the pope’s own Decalogue, which came to us out of his decades of intimacy with God, and which includes:
3) Only for today I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the next world but also in this one.
4) Only for today I will adapt to circumstances without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
5) Only for today I will devote ten minutes of my time to some good reading.
They’re all excellent precepts to follow. Pick up a copy of The Secret to Happiness today and see where it leads you!