The Gospel of Happiness

Christopher Kaczor is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University. His new book, The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover your Faith Through Spirituality and Positive Psychology, draws deep parallels between the secular study of happiness and Christian belief and practice. He sat down with Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts to talk about his research.

kaczor1 - The Gospel of Happiness

BCLA: What is happiness, and how do people achieve it?

Dr. Kaczor: Happiness can be defined in a variety of ways, but I like psychologist Martin Seligman’s definition, which includes five aspects: (1) positive emotion: feelings of optimism and exhilaration; (2) engagement: that sense of flow you feel when you are fully immersed in what you’re doing; (3) relationship: having good friends and loving bonds with other people; (4) meaning: the sense that you are making a difference in the world; and (5) achievement: the ability to set goals and accomplish them.

Of course, there are many different ways to pursue happiness. Some people seek happiness through bodily pleasure – doing drugs, eating nice meals. Others seek happiness through comparative advantage – being more powerful or famous than other people. Still others seek happiness through love of other people. And others seek happiness through loving other people and loving God. Sometimes, we can have all of these kinds of happiness, and sometimes we have to make choices among them.

Research consistently shows that people who practice a religious faith – Christianity or something else – report higher levels of happiness. Why is that?

Many reasons. For one, if you go to a religious service on a regular basis, what are the types of messages you’re receiving? Serve other people. Be grateful. Forgive others. These are bread and butter teachings in every faith – and they encourage positive emotion, positive relationships and feelings of meaning. If you go week after week, you receive these messages. And we know from advertising that when people hear the same message over and over, it affects them!

Let’s talk about a couple of those messages. “Be grateful” is one lesson that both Christianity and positive psychology find especially important.

Gratitude is huge, and there’s a reason: people have a negativity bias. Negative experiences tend to stick more in our memories than positive ones. There is probably an evolutionary reason to notice and dwell on the negative; millions of years ago, if you didn’t see the mountain lion about to eat you, you would die. But, today of course, our negativity bias can create feelings of unhappiness. In Martin Seligman’s positive psychology research, he had people perform a simple Three Good Things exercise, in which participants were asked to name three things they were grateful for each day. Over time, this correlated to a decrease in feelings of depression for participants. The Three Good Things exercise probably sounds familiar to Jesuits. 500 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola developed a prayer called the Examen, which asks you to reflect on the last 24 hours and contemplate the blessings you have received. 500 years ago, Ignatius knew what secular psychologists are learning now: people are likely to dwell on negative experiences, and they benefit from actively reflecting on the positive.

Christianity also has some messages about money that map to the psychological research on happiness.

Yes, psychologists have found that money has no real effect on happiness, after a certain point. So, if you have three meals a day, clothes and a place to live, then making more money makes no difference. Whether you make $30,000 or $500,000, you get used to what you have and start wishing you made just 10-15% more. But when you get a raise or promotion, you get used to that amount and start wishing again. Most people don’t stop and say, “Isn’t it amazing? I had 3 meals today and a warm bed!” And of course, Christianity is clear that worshiping money is a dead end. So, one place where secular psychology and Christianity overlap is basically warning against greed.

Are there any lessons from your research that especially apply to our students at LMU, who are figuring out how they will build meaningful, successful, happy lives?

Absolutely. One way to find happiness is through engagement with life – and part of that is living into your strengths. Our students have the opportunity here to figure out their strengths and find ways to use those strengths in their work and lives. That’s when work becomes not just drudgery but a real vocation.