‘The Gospel of Happiness’: How Faith and Positive Psychology Work Together

‘Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master,” Christopher Kaczor quotes Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, pointing to positive psychology and its “empirical evidence that Christian practices, such as forgiveness, service, and love of neighbor, enhance human well-being.”

Kaczor writes:

The Gospel message is not an alternative to but a way to freedom, meaning, and happiness. As Pope Francis notes, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.” The Christian way in its fullness, even in its sacrifices for love, is a path to happiness, fulfillment, and joy, not an alternative to happiness, fulfillment, and joy.

A professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Kaczor is the author of the new book The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology. He talks about strengthening willpower, gratitude, forgiveness, and Wham!. – KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How does faith in God help happiness?

Christopher Kaczor: In The Gospel of Happiness, I point to the psychological literature suggesting that those who practice a religious faith are on average happier than those who do not. People of faith have more joy and less depression, more optimism and less suicide. Why are believers happier than unbelievers? The answer to this question is complex. Part of the explanation has to do with an emphasis in religious practice on happiness-boosting activities such as serving one’s neighbor, forgiving others, praying, developing virtue, and practicing gratitude. We can becoming happier through a life of faith.

Lopez: Why happiness? Isn’t life supposed to be a valley of tears?

Kaczor: Why not both? The truth is that aspects of life are delightful and other aspects are terrible. Each one of us has joyful mysteries in our lives as well as sorrowful mysteries. But I think Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas were right that we cannot help but seek happiness. As Pascal put it, “All people seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every person, even of those who hang themselves.” Since we seek to be happier in whatever we choose, it makes sense to consider what will accomplish our goal.

Lopez: You write about positive psychology, but it sounds very self-help-y, like a fad. Do you worry this might be so? How does it gel with Christianity?

Kaczor: Positive psychology is not a self-help-y, feel-good fad, but a scientific endeavor to determine what what does and does not increase happiness. Positive psychologists test potential happiness boosting interventions by means of double-blind studies as used to test the efficacy of new medications. What these (mostly secular) psychologists found surprised me. They determined that many traditional Christian practices — such as serving neighbors and forgiving those who harm us, boosted happiness. Traditional Christian virtues — such as humility and gratitude — likewise greatly increased happiness. I learned that positive psychology provides an independent confirmation of the wisdom of many Christian practices.

Usually when we undermine our love for God or neighbor, the cause is weakness of will.

Moreover, some of their findings can help Christians live a more consistent Christian life. When people harm their relationships with God or other people, they seldom act in pure ignorance having no idea that what they are doing undermines love. Usually, they are also not malicious people who say to themselves, “I couldn’t care less about hurting my friend. I’m going to undermine our relationship just for the fun of it!” No, usually when we undermine our love for God or neighbor, the cause is weakness of will. We’d like to do the right thing, but in the moment, we do the wrong thing. We become our own worst enemies undermining our own happiness as well as the happiness of others.

For this reason, in the last chapter of The Gospel of Happiness, I present some recent psychological findings on how to strengthen willpower. Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” We can all empathize with this feeling. Fortunately, the contemporary research suggests many things we can do before temptation hits and while we are being tempted to improve our likelihood of success. For example, just taking a five-minute walk outside provides an immediate boost for willpower. Likewise, we can remember that no temptation lasts forever. All thoughts — positive, negative, neutral — soon move off the stage of our minds. So, if we delay giving in long enough, the temptation itself will end. We will never have perfect willpower, but we can all have better willpower.

Lopez: “The Gospel message is not an alternative to but a way to freedom, meaning, and happiness.” How is Christian living about freedom? Because it sounds like a lot of prohibitions to a lot of people.

Kaczor: Let’s consider swimmers who want to win gold medals in the Olympics. They are not going to be free to win first prize unless they have good technique, train hard, and also avoid what will undermine their swimming ability, such as breaking their legs . To be free to be the gold-medal winner involves not just doing whatever strikes their mood, but rather doing what helps them to win. To achieve the goal, they must do certain things and avoid other things.

You and I may not care about winning a gold medal at the Olympics, but you and I both want to be happier. Becoming happier, for human beings, always involves love. The famous Grant Study of Harvard University students concluded that “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Love involves goodwill, appreciation, and unity with other people. Many things enhance love like kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, and serving others. But other things undermine love like cruelty, haughtiness, malice, and harming others. To achieve our goal of becoming happier, we must do certain things and avoid other things. Are we “free” when we are unhappy? I don’t think most people describe misery as a form of freedom. To lack love is not to be free but to be a slave. To live in love is to be free for happiness.

Lopez: What do you mean when you write: “Christianity is about the cross of self-denial, not cuddling up in the warm cocoon of self-love and self-forgiveness”?

Kaczor: In this passage, I was thinking about how some Christians might object to a focus on happiness. They might say, “Christianity is all about doing your duty, not becoming happier.”

They certainly are correct that Christian belief and practice involves doing the the right thing, even when it is difficult. But Christianity is much more than cold duty. Pope Francis proclaims the joy of the Gospel echoing the teachings of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II. These popes represent the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. These saints are are following Christ, who prayed, “Holy Father, . . . I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely” (John 17:1, 13). In Christian belief, self-denial is not self-denial for its own sake, but for the sake of love and happiness.

Lopez: Why is forgiveness so important?

Kaczor: Christopher Peterson, the late, great pioneer in positive psychology, held that the ability to forgive may be the most important factor for happiness. Without forgiveness, long-term relationships with family and friends become impossible. The reason is that sooner or later all human beings fail to love other people properly. So, if there is no forgiveness, when someone wrongs us, we delete them from our lives. If this process is repeated enough, we will end up with no long term relationships with family or friends. We will be lonely, and we will be less happy than we could have been. When we do not forgive, we hold within ourselves the burning coals of resentment, anger, and frustration. When we hold onto burning coals, we get burned. For this reason, chapter five of The Gospel of Happiness is dedicated to psychological and theological insights into forgiveness.

Lopez: Can we live without gratitude?

Kaczor: Yes, we can live without gratitude. But we may not live long. One study found that the fewest people commit suicide on Thanksgiving Day. We certainly won’t live as happily as we can live with gratitude. The psychological research on gratitude indicates that grateful people have increased feelings of energy, alertness, enthusiasm, and vigor, greater success in achieving personal goals, better coping with stress, and bolstered feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. Gratitude increases happiness by shifting the focus from what we don’t have to what we do have.

As Catholics, we are lucky to have a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving more than just once a year in November. The Eucharist is the Greek term for thanksgiving, so every Mass is a chance to be grateful for all blessings that God has given us. For good reason, the final words of every Mass are, “Thanks be to God.” What a great message to take into our hearts and into the world.

Lopez: How does pride kill gratitude?

Kaczor: Pride kills gratitude because people puffed up with pride think that the good things in life result entirely from their own efforts. The proud fail to recognize themselves as the recipients of gifts from God or others, and so they cannot experience gratitude as a response to a gift.

Lopez: Why is humility so important to gratitude?

Kaczor: The researchers found that humility enhances gratitude because it makes us more aware of our dependence upon God and others. Humility, properly speaking, is not about viewing yourself as less than you are. The humble person is the grounded person who recognizes reality. We did not create ourselves, we do not sustain ourselves in every respect, and we cannot accomplish all we need for happiness without the help of others.

Lopez: What is “the human negativity bias”?

Humility, properly speaking, is not about viewing yourself as less than you are. The humble person is the grounded person who recognizes reality.

Kaczor: The human negativity bias refers to the tendency we have to focus on and recall the bad rather than the good. For example, if someone insults us, we tend to remember the insult more than if someone compliments us.

Perhaps to remedy this bias, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), suggested to those who sought his direction that they take time each day to consider the blessing that God had given them. The contemporary positive psychologist Martin Seligman studied this practice, which he called the Three Good Things exercise. Among mildly depressed people, 94 percent felt happier after doing this exercise for two weeks.

Lopez: What might The Gospel of Happiness have to do with Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the United States?

Kaczor: Since 1958, Pope Francis has been a Jesuit. The Gospel of Happiness emphasizes many ways in which the teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, have been vindicated by positive psychology. For example, Ignatius recommended to those seeking his advice that they not make major decisions and changes in times of desolation, sadness, anxiety, and feeling downtrodden. He advocated rather being moved by a spirit of consolation, optimism, hope, and joy. The positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that indeed people do make better decisions when in a positive mood than in a negative mood. St. Ignatius also recommended communicating about temptations to a trusted advisor, and this too psychologists discovered is beneficial for reducing temptation. I mentioned in answering an earlier question another overlap between the Jesuit Examen and the Three Good Things exercise. It is no accident that Pope Francis wrote about The Joy of the Gospel.

Lopez: How can your Gospel of Happiness be an aid in the upcoming Year of Mercy Pope Francis has announced?

Kaczor: The spiritual and corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry and praying for others, are central elements of Christian practice. What leads to greater boosts in happiness, fun activities such as eating ice cream or philanthropic activities such as reading to the blind? Positive psychology tested “fun versus philanthropy” and found that the philanthropic activities produced much longer lasting beneficial effects. For enduring happiness, acts of mercy beat the movies.

One of the most important spiritual acts of mercy is to forgive those who offend us. Jesus calls us to forgive each other in teaching us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus provides us an example of forgiveness in praying from the cross for those who have crucified him. Psychologists have discovered the importance of forgiveness for better health and increased happiness.

But how do we forgive? It is difficult, it can even seem impossible to forgive. Even saying the words “I forgive” can be difficult, but even more difficult is letting go of resentment, anger, and desire for revenge.  In chapter five, The Gospel of Happiness offers a number of psychological insights about how to reach forgiveness. Many of these insights are drawn from a Christian psychologist named Everett Worthington who has been studying forgiveness for decades. His research was put to an ultimate test when his own mother was brutally murdered. I talk about how he was able to forgive the man who murdered his mom. If even the murderer of a dearly beloved mother can be forgiven, lesser wrongdoing can be forgiven.

Prayer for others is another act of mercy. In chapter three, I look at the Our Father, the Mass, and prayers to saints as ways to enhance happiness. Positive psychology also (indirectly) addresses the value of prayers of petition for the well-being of others. When we pray, we make the world a more merciful place.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice (published by Our Sunday Visitor).


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