Acting happy is more important than feeling happy

October 28, 2013
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By Jasbir T. Singh |

I don't like the word, "happy" and "happiness", as it is used in our secular society. The word is extremely vague, and it means different things to so many people.

I prefer more accurate language capable of explaining a person's general state of being or disposition. The following words are much better in my opinion: contentment, contentedness, satisfaction, cheerfulness, cheeriness, merriment, merriness, gaiety, joy, joyfulness, joyousness, joviality, jolliness, gladness, delight, good spirits, good cheer, well-being, etc.

In my limited research into happiness, I discovered Dennis Prager's amazing insight in this talk he gave at St. Petersburg College's Applied Ethics Institute.

I agree with Prager when he says that happiness is not a psychological state or feeling, but rather a moral obligation. Understood in this way, happiness has the power to transform the world we live in.

At the level of relationships between people, he says that even if we are not happy, we still have a moral obligation to "act" happy. He makes the case that parents should "act" happy because their children are so vulnerable and impressionable regarding what parents think of them. I think it's also interesting how children have an influence on parental behaviour. For instance, some of the things I used to say before having children, would never be spoken in my household today! Despite the fact that children are parrots (yes they repeat everything they hear in the home), I would say that parents have a duty to think before speaking, and to choose their words carefully. I have no academic background in the area of child development, but I think its rather natural for at least responsible parents to recognize this, and that being happy for your children is crucial for their healthy development. I'm not saying we should never get angry in front of our children, that's important too, but the general tone in the household should be a happy one.

But isn't acting happy being inauthentic? Isn't it being disingenuous to pretend? To this challenge, Prager smartly replies:
If you don't act how you feel, you are considered a
hypocrite...if you don't act how you feel, you are an adult!
Among married partners, he also makes the case that spouses owe it to each other to be happy. Moody spouses can really hurt or even kill marriages, and so he begs moody people to change their behaviour (not their feelings) for the good of the marriage. This part of his talk is very amusing, yet serious, and it is well worth listening to for married people.

Even children have a responsibility to be "happy" towards their parents. Prager says that the Bar Mitzvah, where 13-year-old boys are deemed to become men (Bat Mitzvah for 12-year-old girls) is a significant event because parents are no longer to blame for the sins of their children at this age of maturity. Boys and girls are now held responsible for their own actions. This leads to the notion that while everyone may have their own particular issues, others should never be blamed for the cause of one's own unhappiness. In this regard, I think many of us have come across negative people who are constantly complaining in some way or another about their own life situation. Perhaps they need to realize that their happiness is not dependent on the actions of others, but rather on their own actions and attitude.

I like how Prager ends his talk by expressing his displeasure with our feelings-based society today. He points the finger at "feelings", and accuses it as the leading cause of societal ills:
..."it's killing us".
While feelings are an essential component to our humanity, he dislikes the fact that feelings now trump what is right and what is wrong. Our world has become so infatuated with feelings that everything has been reduced to opposing opinions. For example, even colleges teach that if one group is labelled as a terrorist organization (bad), another opinion could just as easily label the same group as a freedom fighting organization (good). When feelings and opinions become everything, then values naturally take the back seat.

I think Prager is right. Being overly focused on feelings is a huge problem today, and behaviour and values are far more important. Recognizing happiness as a behaviour rather than a feeling would serve us much better.

Watch this short clip for more details:

Here are some traditional sources of information on the subject of happiness:

- Psalm 1:1-3
- Psalm 128:1-4
- Psalm 146:5-9
- Matthew 5:1-11
- Summa Theologica (Saint Thomas Aquinas) page 802:
Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence. To make this clear, two points must be observed. First, that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek: secondly, that the perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object. Now the object of the intellect is "what a thing is," i.e. the essence of a thing, according to De Anima iii, 6. Wherefore the intellect attains perfection, in so far as it knows the essence of a thing. If therefore an intellect knows the essence of some effect, whereby it is not possible to know the  essence of the cause, i.e. to know of the cause "what it is"; that intellect cannot be said to reach that cause simply, although it may be able to gather from the effect the knowledge of that the cause is. Consequently, when man knows an effect, and knows that it has a cause, there naturally remains in the man the desire to know about the cause, "what it is." And this desire is one of wonder, and causes inquiry, as is stated in the beginning of the Metaphysics (i, 2). For instance, if a man, knowing the eclipse of the sun, consider that it must be due to some cause, and know not what that cause is, he wonders about it, and from wondering proceeds to inquire. Nor does this inquiry cease until he arrive at a knowledge of the essence of the cause. If therefore the human intellect, knowing the essence of some created effect, knows no more of God than "that He is"; the perfection of that intellect does not yet reach simply the First Cause, but there remains in it the natural desire to seek the cause. Wherefore it is not yet perfectly happy. Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man's happiness consists. 

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