The Gospel of Happiness

Today I’m very pleased and honored to once again be part of Image Books’ latest blog tour. This time we’re going to be looking at “The Gospel of Happiness”, a new book by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton, and professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.  My thoughts appear below, but to read what other bloggers have thought of it, be sure to visit the Image website, and click through the Blog tour links to see what other writers – including my friend Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos – are saying about this helpful addition to your bookshelf.

We begin, as we must, with an overview of what the author is trying to tell us with respect to living a happier life. I’m going to ask you to bear with me through this more formalized part of this post, since I think it only fair that I try to give you some general idea of what we’re talking about here. After which, I hope you’ll stick around since, while I don’t often share personal details on these pages, I do intend to share a little bit about my personal reaction to this book, in particular its final chapter, which I found it extremely helpful.

In “The Gospel of Happiness”, Christopher Kaczor outlines positive psychology, a concept which has gained significant traction in the field of psychology over the last few decades. Instead of taking a pathological – and these days ultimately pharmaceutical – approach to the study, understanding, and treatment of mental illness, positive psychology looks at ways in which people can bring about self-improvement through the adoption of more positive attitudes and reactions to the circumstances of their lives. Dr. Kaczor certainly does not suggest that *all* people suffering from depression, addiction, and other maladies can be helped through non-clinical intervention. Rather, if I may paraphrase his work, he advocates what the ancient Romans understood, which my Catholic readers will recognize immediately as the motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola (and himself a significant influence on Dr. Kaczor’s own spirituality), of striving for the one-two combination of a sound mind in a sound body.

Positive psychology does not suggest that one must burst into a chorus of “Everything Is Awesome” whenever one is faced with difficult circumstances. Instead, it recognizes that in many cases, people can change their circumstances, or at least their reactions to them, by trying to focus on good things: those benefits they do possess despite their problems, ways they may be able to help others less fortunate than themselves, and so on. Dr. Kaczor takes pains to point out that positive psychology is not the 1950’s Norman Vincent Peale notion of “the power of positive thinking”, nor the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mantra of the Baby Boom generation, as transmogrified by the cult of Oprah Winfrey and her prophets. Rather, positive psychology has its roots in scientific, clinical studies conducted over many years, which show that “[c]ultivating positive emotions can aid us in making wise decisions because when we are in a positive frame of mind, we can take a broader view of what is going on, and can be more open to building healthy relationships.”

Interestingly, as part of that analysis, Dr. Kaczor points out that many of the positive reinforcement ideas and methods advocated by this field of psychology are directly compatible with living the Christian life. While he acknowledges the influence of atheism and immorality in a number of psychological methods and theories, he also shows how, through the words of Christ and the examples of the saints, Christians can lead lives with the goal of more positive treatment of the self and others, and ultimately greater intimacy with God. Studies quoted throughout this volume have shown that people who are not just believers, but active in their faith, on the whole suffer far fewer incidents of clinical depression and other psychological issues, or recover more quickly from such problems, than those who have no faith or who are lackadaisical in the practices.

Here endeth our formal presentation.

On a personal level, I’m going to drop the veil – er, cape – a bit, and confess something: I need to have a good clear-out. There have been quite a number of things going on in my life over the last couple of years, and in particular over the past few months, that have left me in the position of recognizing that I need to do this. I look at where things stand and realize that while certain things are going extremely well, other things most definitely are in need of a shake-up.

Let me put it to you in a more visible way, by providing a single example: my desk at home is an absolute disaster. It is littered with the detritus of a disordered, reactionary, mostly sensual life. New books I haven’t started, unopened and unread copies of magazines, ticket stubs from long-completed travels, restaurant receipts from long-forgotten dinners, junk mail from every Catholic charity known to man, and many other such things are piled in teetering towers, just ready for The Cat to knock over. My desk has become emblematic of many aspects of both my spiritual life and my interpersonal relationships.

What Dr. Kaczor explains extremely well, in the final chapter of “The Gospel of Happiness”, is that when things get to this point, we need to take measured steps, without expecting perfection, and learn from our mistakes. An example he gives concerns gluttony, something which I’m sure even those with the most frugal appetites among us will recognize. He asks us to take a step back from giving in to the short-term pleasure of eating that candy bar at lunch, today, promising ourselves that we will give it up tomorrow. Are we willing to live with the consequences of eating a candy bar at lunch, every day, for 30 days in a row, while promising ourselves that “one day” we’ll give it up? He argues that it’s when we step back and see the whole picture, putting temporary emotions and desires in their place and recognizing as he puts it that tomorrow must be today, that we can learn to master ourselves better.

While all of Dr. Kaczor’s book is very much worth your time, it is in this final chapter, on strengthening the will, that I find he really hits the high notes, both in terms of practicality and spiritual counsel. When he looks into how and why we fail, and allow our feelings to overwhelm us, we can see that he is making a great deal of sense. It’s not enough simply to want to change certain negative behaviors or patterns in our lives, but rather understanding on a practical level what we can do about it, that Dr. Kaczor tackles brilliantly. With the help of prayer, spiritual direction, and not beating ourselves up all the time, he gives many examples and an outstanding summary of ways to move forward in your own internal life, as well as in your external relationships, so that God, neighbor, and self are all in balance.

So many books of popular psychology start out well but then fizzle out by the end. So many more simply overlook the experiences of people of faith as being irrelevant, at best, or antipathetic, at worst, to the practice of psychology. Neither of these characterizations apply to this book. For me personally, Dr. Kaczor has provided a bit of a way forward, for me to start cleaning things out and start moving rather than reacting again. Perhaps this work can do the same for you, or for someone you care about.

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Digging Deep into the Peanut Butter

Last night I was going to eat peanut butter out of the jar – what? I’m a guy – and found myself rifling through the cutlery drawer in search of a particular spoon that I wanted.  The jumble of mismatched silverware at the Fortress of Solitude reflects the fact that I don’t entertain much, and when I do, it’s usually with finger foods and an emphasis on drinks.  So the spoon I was looking for, and eventually found, was one that I’ve used many times in the past for this purpose, and have become accustomed to.

Aside from my (questionable) bachelor eating habits however, the search for the spoon at the end of my day was strangely mirrored by a search I had gone through that very morning, through the silk and wool jungle undergrowth I call a tie rack.  I was looking for a tie in a particular shade of blue, to contrast with the gingham shirt I intended to wear to the office, and ended up having to take every tie off the rack until I found it.  Yet there was never any question, to my mind, that the tie in question was the one I had to wear that particular day, any more than my protein overload later that night was going to take place using one particular spoon, or not at all.

Why do we give inanimate objects this kind of power over us? Would the peanut butter have tasted any different had it been eaten with another spoon? Or would my shirt have been spoiled by wearing a different, but perfectly acceptable tie from the one I had intended?

Psychologists tell us that children with Asperger’s Syndrome can develop rigid fixations on particular objects, which help them to find a sense of order in the universe.  When the object which they feel is critical to the completion of some task or activity is unavailable, they may become inconsolable or withdrawn.  This is behavior which can be observed even among children who do not suffer from Asperger’s: one thinks of the character Linus from the “Peanuts” comics, for example, and his security blanket.

As adults, despite all of our supposed sophistication and wisdom gained from leaving childhood behind, we can all point to certain objects we possess which we associate with a feeling of continuity in our lives.  It may be a shirt we consider “lucky”, because we wore it on the day we met that certain someone for the first time.  Or it might be a certain box, where we keep ephemera like concert tickets or birthday cards.

However the real power of these otherwise ordinary objects is not intrinsic to the objects themselves.  Destroy them, and you do not destroy the self, any more than you destroy what such objects represent, unperceived though that meaning may be to the untrained eye.  Rather, their power lies in their ability to transform us, something which, maybe without even realizing it, we are the ones granting them the ability to do.  You won’t love your grandmother the less if you accidentally smash the dish she left you in her will, or ruin your marriage when you burn a hole in that favorite chair you bought on your honeymoon – although there may be other consequences, in that instance.

What matters in such cases is the good that these objects lead us to do, whether it is enjoying a simple pleasure, recalling someone dear to us, or serving as a reminder of what matters in our lives, and the goals we are striving toward.  So yes, the peanut butter would taste just as good with a different spoon, and the shirt would have looked just as well with a different tie.  As long as I recognize the fact that I’m the one who gives them their significance, then I will be sure to keep things in perspective.

Now where are my Superman socks…

Clearly this kid didn't need a spoon...

Clearly this kid didn’t need a spoon…