What I’m reading: Finding True Happiness, Robert Spitzer, S.J.

Author: William Schmitt

Happiness, or at least the word, was everywhere as 2016 approached — echoing in holiday conversations and in the worldwide shouts of “Happy New Year!” late on Dec. 31.

Faced with the emptiness and angst I sensed in much of that happy talk — and now facing a year that debuted with terror threats against train stations in Germany and quickly graduated to fears of North Korean H-bombs — I’ve confirmed my new year’s resolution: Either it’s time to drop all this fake, escapist merriment . . . or it’s time to get really serious about happiness.

I readily chose the second option, encouraged by recent experiences that convince me happiness should be taken seriously. Fortunately, I’ve found just the book to help me do that: Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts. This is a densely packed, 320-page journey through insights of philosophy and theology, religious practice and civic life, and even psychology and astrophysics, but it’s yet another masterpiece by Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., whose books I’ve come to see as strong medicine for the mind and for our culture.

One review of his book The Soul’s Upward Yearning, called this Jesuit a “Jedi master” who can lead you into a transcendent understanding of the universe. I prefer to think of him as a human hyperlink generator, in kinship with Pope Francis, who connects everything through “human ecology” in Laudato Si’, and with G.K. Chesterton, who paves his paths to truth with paradoxes. Spitzer ultimately imposes order, simplicity and purpose on our random rationalization and emotionalism.

My own knack for inserting hyperlinks throughout my conversations and meditations (you might say I wander as I wonder) is what compelled me recently to dig into the Happiness book as guidance for my 2016 resolution. Life was toying with my happiness. I craved a treasure map to the “real thing.”

My daughter had returned from her first semester at college — this made me happy by any definition! — and from her first philosophy course. We talked about Aristotle’s insight that happiness is our most basic motivation, the goal for which we choose every other principle or mission. These are crucial days, I thought to myself, when my daughter and other teens are determining what’s real. What “happiness” will become their North Star?

She agreed that “the pursuit of happiness,” as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, was being dumbed down by many people today. I was proud that she demands more of happiness and allows happiness to demand more of her. But I also realized these standards may require more trials, humility and conundrums in her life — graces a dad wishes upon his daughter wistfully.

Other incidents kept happiness on my radar as the new year approached. As we drove to festivities and listened to songs from our current playlists, a Pharrell Williams tune called “Happy” (featured in the film Despicable Me 2) made me happy. A different song sounded promising at first with its refrain, “I want to make you happy,” but my daughter informed me it was The Kooks singing a ditty called “Junk of the Heart.” Those lyrics made me sad.

On Christmas Eve morning, we caught a documentary on the Turner Classic Movies network looking back at various remakes of A Christmas Carol. Some of these captured powerfully Scrooge’s redemptive pilgrimage through what Father Spitzer would call the four levels of happiness — from rudimentary, materialistic self-satisfaction, to the comparison game of wealth and ego, to a more contributive desire to serve empathetically, to the transcendent level where unconditional love, truth and goodness can bring peace of mind — and where Tiny Tim rightly invokes, “God bless us, everyone.” Tiny Tim got the point about vulnerability and trust that many miss. One of the first film treatments of the Scrooge story (in 1916) boldly posited The Right to Be Happy.

My 320-page mindwalk to inner peace is nothing new. Dickens summarized the concept in his 1843 novella. Audiences have resonated forever with this story, as told by such celebrities as George C. Scott, the Muppets and Mr. Magoo.

All these dots, connected, are buttressing my resolution, despite a new year that millions find daunting. Surfing among the hyperlinks of Finding True Happiness is invigorating, even fun. Urgent, too. If I don’t try it this year, when?

To determine whether I made optimal use of Spitzer’s insights, meet me in 12 months. If I blurt out, “Happy New Year,” don’t hesitate to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

William Schmitt is the communications/media specialist of the Institute for Educational Initiatives/Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame.