Conversation with a monk: The traps and treasures of happiness
Victoria Hall, Staff Writer
Humans have contemplated happiness since the infancy of critical thought. It is an elusive concept; something constantly desired, yet experienced in phases. Greek philosopher Aristotle considered it the “central purpose of human life.” As one of the greatest thinkers in western history, he contributed significantly to the knowledge of happiness in ways that are celebrated by scholars, historians, and theologians to this day.
Aristotle proposed the theory that happiness can occur on four levels: “laetus” (physical gratification and material possession), “felix” (comparison and competition), “Beatitudo” (loving and serving others), and “Sublime Beatitudo” (a perfect balance of the previous three, and accordance with something higher). Something higher could mean God or simply having a sense of purpose. For Aristotle, it meant complete virtue.
Students at Saint Martin’s University are also encouraged to live a life of virtue by upholding the benedictine values. These values are meant to support growth in every aspect of life. In a recent interview, Brother Nicolaus of the campus monastery explored how they fit Aristotle’s model of happiness.
He considers awareness of God to be the key to healthy enjoyment of physical gratification.
“The good lord has created a universe full of beautiful and wonderful things. We should treasure that. There is a place for recreation, fun, happiness, and enjoyment of things you don’t need.”
First level happiness is instant but fleeting. For Brother Nicolaus, emphasizing “community living” creates lasting joy from momentary experiences.
“We didn’t need to see the marvel movie, but a few of us did anyways because it was fun. Spending time with brothers builds community and many good things can come from that.”
He also acknowledged the traps of this level, and how to avoid them by practicing moderation.
“We’re all prone to wanting more and not being satisfied with what we have. It happens all the time – you want the newest or best thing, so you get it. Then it just sits on your shelf when you thought it would make you happy.”
He encouraged moderation by first asking, “Do I really need this, or is it just something I want? If it’s something I want, am I just trying to satisfy some urge? This can reveal your motives. Nobody’s motives are one hundred percent pure – there’s always mixed motivations. But there’s a middle place that can be healthy.”
Regarding the comparative happiness of the second level, Nicolaus encourages embracing positive outlets for competition.
“Competition is not entirely bad; it just needs to be done properly. Benedict talks about mutual encouragement,” he said, before describing how monks once raced each other to church in the mornings; whoever won received a special blessing.
“That’s the [type of] competition where it’s not about me winning at your expense. Try comparing yourself to others in a way that doesn’t put them down but lifts you both up. Perhaps you can both win.”
But competition often does result in the oppression of others, or unwillingness to admit weakness.
“America, especially, has a self-sufficient, ‘I can do or be anything,’ culture. It’s a problem for people to accept charity when they need it. Recognizing that you need help, and reaching for it isn’t weakness, as it can offer others the opportunity for selflessness and growth.” To transcend this level, Brother Nicolaus recommends self-love.
“One of the greatest commandments is to love one another as you love yourself. For this, you need to have a healthy self-love…recognize that [you’re] going to fail sometimes, so when others make mistakes, [you] can say ‘I’ve been there and know what that’s like. I’m not perfect and they’re not perfect.”
“God is love.” He said, discussing the third level happiness of serving others.
“The father pours himself into the son and the spirit, [and they] reciprocate by pouring themselves out. It’s this constant self-giving. That’s the ultimate definition of love: to be self-giving…That’s what we’re striving for, to enter into that dance – that life of God.”
However, third level happiness is limited. Eventually you will disappoint others, or not know how to help them. Overcoming the pain of this requires belief in something beyond you.
“Of course, I believe it takes a faith experience. That can look a thousand different ways for a thousand different people. It could mean entering into structured religion, but it could also be as simple as recognizing a higher purpose, or the immensity of the universe. It takes the capacity of seeing something bigger and beyond yourself.”
According to Aristotle, “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” Perhaps working with his model, and upholding the Benedictine values, can create a practice of lasting happiness.