Are you happy? (Confessions Book VI)

In book 6 of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine tells of how all of his pursuits were not bringing him any closer to happiness.
He tells a story of a particular time he was preparing a speech that was going to include a series of lies about the emperor and how those lies would be applauded. As he is rehearsing and refining his speech, he comes across a man on the street. This beggar was happy and Augustine was miserable. Even though he was well on his way to achieving a name for himself, he said he was unhappy.
As I read this little illustration of Augustine’s misery, I couldn’t help but think about how bad we are at predicting our own happiness.
“Are you happy?” my wife once asked.
At first, I didn’t respond. As a matter of fact, I was slightly irritated by the question. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted to respond by asking her what she meant, or find out why she would ask such a question. But, above everything else, I just wanted the question to go away.
I said something to assure her that yes, I was happy. Everything was fine.
But the more I thought about the question the more I wondered why I considered such a simple question to be such a source of irritation. I started wondering if I even knew what would make me happy.
Yes, it sounds simple because even a three year old can answer it. When I’ve asked three year old children what would make them happy, they answer, “This piece of candy” or “That toy.” I suppose on a basic level they are right. Their happiness in the moment is tied to getting what they want. Would getting something I want make me happy?
Within moments, a second piece of candy or another toy was needed to make them happy. The same is true for me. I gain a new possession, rise to a new position, or move to a new place and for a few satisfying moments, I am happy. But it never lasts.
Many people throughout history have said that the way to happiness to find things that bring pleasure. Whatever brings pleasure will also bring happiness. And, as enjoyable as some pleasures have been – the laughter with friends, the experience of beauty and love, the success of hard work – they never bring that state of happiness. The philosopher Rousseau said, “Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: ‘Would that this moment could last forever!’” Even in the most pleasurable moments there is still the desire for something more, something else.

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