Jesus prayed, saying: “Holy Father, . . . I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely.” John 17:1, 13

What is real happiness? How can I experience it? How can I live it? Every thoughtful person asks such questions. Thoughtful Christians add a few more questions, such as: How can I enhance Christian living? Is there any proof that Christian practices enhance happiness? Does Christianity provide happiness in a way that other paths, like psychology, cannot?

The Gospel of Happiness - Christopher KaczorThese questions are worth exploring, but I never expected to write a book looking at happiness from a theological and psychological perspective. My only personal experience in psychological counseling had not been positive. As a graduate student studying philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame, I was under tremendous academic and financial pressure. I wanted to be a philosophy professor, but I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to make it. My wife and I were struggling to support our young family of three children on my graduate stipend of $10,000 a year. Financial pressure, family struggles, and the intensity of my academic work took a toll. A friend suggested I seek psychological counseling, so I did. After the second session, the psychologist said to me, “You know, Chris, there are two kinds of people for whom psychological counseling is completely worthless. One group is hard-core drug addicts. The other group is philosophers.”

Needless to say, there was no third session. So, although my initial experience with a psychologist had not proved helpful, in reading about the philosophy and theology of happiness, my scholarly work on the subject of happiness eventually led me to something called “positive psychology,” which opened my eyes anew.

When Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he chose “positive psychology” as his theme, launching a new movement within the field. Traditionally, psychology has focused on people’s problems such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Seligman challenged psychologists to find empirical answers for new questions, such as: What makes people happier? How can people become more resilient? What are people’s signature strengths?

Seligman’s recasting of psychology opened up a flourishing new field that focused on optimism rather than helplessness, signature strengths rather than pathology, and growth in happiness rather than depression. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, began teaching about positive psychology, and his class became Harvard’s most popular undergraduate course. The University of Pennsylvania and Claremont Graduate University now offer advanced degrees in positive psychology. This new field also generated bestselling books such as The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

Martin Seligman’s recasting of psychology opened up a flourishing new field that focused on optimism rather than helplessness, signature strengths rather than pathology, and growth in happiness rather than depression.

Unlike Norman Vincent Peale and his idea of the power of positive thinking, researchers in positive psychology stress that their approach is empirical and scientific. Like new medications, the various strategies for increasing happiness are tested via double-blind, replicated studies that make use of control groups.

What I learned from positive psychology was astonishing. First, although some people believe that faith and psychology contradict each other, researchers in positive psychology found that traditional Christian practices such as giving thanks, forgiving others, and serving your neighbor promoted human happiness and well-being. I learned that I did not need to choose between Christian faith and positive psychology, any more than I had to choose between Christian faith and modern medicine. Christian believers can embrace the findings of positive psychology, even if its source is secular science. As St. Augustine wrote in On Christian Doctrine, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” St. Thomas Aquinas had the same insight: “Every truth, no matter who utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit.” Indeed, positive psychology vindicates the wisdom of Christian practices. Some philosophers, like Friedrich Nietzsche, claim that Christian practices undermine a flourishing human life. But positive psychology provides empirical evidence that Christian practices, such as forgiveness, service, and love of neighbor, enhance human well-being.

Second, I discovered that certain contemporary findings in psychology can help Christians to better live the message of Jesus. The Second Vatican Council envisioned such uses of science: “In pastoral care, sufficient use must be made, not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith” (Gaudium et Spes 62). In this book, I hope to put into practice this teaching of the Second Vatican Council by showing how positive psychology can enhance Christian living.

I had always thought that psychology was an alternative to religion. In college, I had read Sigmund Freud’s attack on Christian belief. Freud, the founder of twentieth-century psychology, taught that religion was an illusion, and he wrote that he hoped “that in the future science will go beyond religion, and reason will replace faith in God.”3 After I’d read Freud’s view of religion, the idea that psychology and faith are diametrically opposed became cemented in the back of my mind. But Freud’s views—about both religion and psychology—have been challenged in a variety of ways, in part by findings based on empirical evidence.4 Contemporary psychology does make use of some Freudian insights, but psychologists do not need to adopt his atheism and hostility to religion. Practicing positive psychology certainly does not necessitate atheism. Indeed, I found that positive psychology is connected in surprising ways with the practice of faith.

Positive psychology provides an independent verification of the happiness-boosting power of many traditional Christian practices. St. Thomas Aquinas saw in Aristotelian philosophy a powerful way to show—using reason alone—that the many truths of the Christian faith were also reasonable. Using philosophy, he was able to point to a God who was one, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. In a similar way, positive psychology provides a powerful justification—using reason alone—for practicing Christian virtues, such as forgiveness, humility, gratitude, and love for others.

The current Christian’s situation with respect to psychology is somewhat analogous to thirteenth-century Christians’ engagement with Aristotle. When Aristotle was rediscovered in that era, some Christians feared and condemned the errors of his thinking. But this rediscovery led other Christians, in particular St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, to investigate this philosophy more deeply, and out of this investigation, these saints forged a new and powerful synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian revelation. Although some manifestations and approaches in psychology are clearly incompatible and vitiate Christian faith, positive psychology offers both surprising confirmations of Christian practice and helpful aids for Christian living. Just as Aristotle’s natural theology bolstered Christian theology, today positive psychology provides an empirical justification and aid for Christian practice, a kind of natural moral theology.

Although some approaches in psychology are clearly incompatible with Christian faith, positive psychology offers both surprising confirmations of Christian practice and helpful aids for Christian living.

It might seem as if seeking after flourishing and happiness runs counter to the Christian message: To be a Christian is about doing one’s duty, not seeking happiness. Being a practicing Christian is about loving your neighbor altruistically and serving God sacrificially; it’s not about getting personal satisfaction.

Certainly, the Christian life involves loving neighbor and loving God rather than selfishly seeking personal satisfaction at other people’s expense. But part of the Christian message is that authentic happiness is to be found not in selfishness, but in self-giving. The Gospel message is not an alternative to but a way to freedom, meaning, and happiness.

As Pope Francis notes, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” The Christian way in its fullness, even in its sacrifices for love, is a path to happiness, fulfillment, and joy, not an alternative to happiness, fulfillment, and joy.

In my research, I’ve explored the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I’ve discovered empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I’ve also learned of practical methods on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I’ve titled my book The Gospel of Happiness—because this is good news, very good news indeed.

Excerpted from The Gospel of Happiness by Christopher Kaczor Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Kaczor. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Related Links

Does belief in God enhance gratitude? Here’s what psychology suggests | by Christopher Kaczor | Washington Post

An Interview with Professor Christopher Kaczor: Should a Christian Pursue Happiness? | by Zoe Romanowsky | Aleteia.org

The Gospel of Happiness: Author Q&A with Christopher Kaczor | America Magazine