We met with Professor J. Budziszewski to discuss what it means to be truly happy and the way to achieve ultimate happiness. Enjoy!
Professor Budziszewski discusses his new book How and How Not to Be Happy, in it he walks readers through the universal quest for happiness. Beyond the simple majority answer to happiness, Budziszewski looks deeply at the meaning and means to happiness. He believes that the most common ways to achieve happiness are not sufficient, and unveils the only answer to ultimate happiness and fulfillment. His book reveals the errors hidden within the most common methods to get happiness. Prof. Budziszewski believes that true happiness is achievable and that the way to obtain it can be found in this world.
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Professor Budziszewski. And I am super excited because you have written a new book called How And How Not To Be Happy. And a lot of the people we interview on here are the most influential people in their field. And when they give advice to young people, they say, "Find what makes you happy, or find what you’re passionate about." But then of course, that leads to the next question of, how do you find what makes you happy? So, I’m super excited to just hear about your book and hear what advice you have for people, young people like me and really anybody, because I think a lot of people can benefit from reading your book. So, the first question is, can you just give us a brief overview of your book and how you kind of broke it down to explain how and how not to be happy.
J. Budziszewski: Well, yes, I’m glad to do that. Look, I’m a scholar, I’m an academic. And so even though this is a book for a general audience, and I tried to make it as easy as possible, and I told my readers that they could skip this part if they wanted to, the first couple of chapters are about how to discuss something like happiness. Now, some people will wanna read that because you know there’s a happiness... An explosion of happiness studies, and a lot of the stuff is nonsense. People go into the field and they may have wonderful statistical techniques and wonderful open-ended interviewing styles and so forth, but they think that the answer to the question "what is happiness and how can I be happy?" is the majority answer to the question. You ask people, "Well, what makes you happy?" People... You’re not gonna get good to answers that way, people know something about happiness, people know something about happiness, if they didn’t, we would have no place to start, so that has to be respected. But it doesn’t mean that they know everything that they know. And a large part of the discussion in the book is helping people connect the dots, tracing the clues, digging up those things that people know that they don’t really know that they know, assembling reminders.
So, I talk about that and I explain why I do that in the first part of the book. Then we start just going through in the second part of the book, just going through some of the possible answers, people say, "Well, happiness is wealth." Is that true? Happiness is pleasure. Many people, they think, "Well, if it isn’t pleasure, what else could it be? Isn’t it the same thing?" And well, no, it isn’t. You can be having all the pleasure in the world and say, "You know, is this all there is?" People will say happiness is beauty, happiness is health, happiness is friendship, happiness is having purpose and meaning in life, happiness is Family, Happiness is love, happiness is... Happiness is virtue. Happiness is luck.
It's a broken and incomplete and fragmentary happiness that we have in this life.” – Professor. J. Budziszewski
And I go through these answers and demonstrate why... Look, there has to be something to those answers or nobody could even find them plausible. I mean, wealth is not happiness, but on the other hand, if you’re starving and you haven’t any material resources, you’re gonna have a problem, alright. So, there’s something plausible there, so I go through these answers, but I explain both what’s plausible about them, but also why in the end they aren’t true. And I end up with a sort of a... You might call it the worldly wise man’s definition of happiness. And I try to explain though that even this is not really sufficient. It’s a broken and incomplete and fragmentary happiness that we have in this life.
So, then the third part of the book goes into the question, well, should we settle? A lot of people would say that, "Look," one of my students once said, "We’re just unhappy." That’s the way it is. You just have to accept that, or you won’t have any happiness at all." Is that really true?
I don’t think so. And I save all of the... I saved all of the religious aspects of the argument to this part of the book, I promise my anti-religious writers that I won’t bother them with this until the end, but that can be discussed rationally and reasonably, too. You can still talk about arguments and evidence and what kinds of answers are plausible and what kinds aren’t. So, then I conclude with what I think ultimate happiness really is.
Karina: Wow, that is incredible. And I’m glad you were able to keep such an optimistic look to this because I do think a lot of people can get frustrated, like, where are the answers? And so I just wanted know…
…how did you get into this? Did you yourself struggle with the question of, How am I gonna be happy? Or did you see everybody around you struggling with it? Because I think whether they admit it or not, or how somebody struggles with it, everybody is kind of wondering the same question like, how am I gonna be happy? So, explain to us the inspiration for this book.
Budziszewski: Yes, well, that’s a very good question, and I would have to say that the inspiration, if you wanna put it that way, are more than one... One, as you say, I ask, How can I be happy? What is ultimate fulfillment? Everybody does. And what I do know about this in many cases, like everybody, I suppose... I made a lot of mistakes in my life. I experienced some pain, I learned something from that. At least I learned about what the answers aren’t, and many of the times when I found some of the things that have to do with true happiness it was that I stumbled into them, or I might say, look, I’m one of these people who sometimes doesn’t say, "God, make this happen."
Everything, literally everything that you think you want, you can have... You can have friends, you can have a family, you can have love, you can have meaningful work, you can have this, and sometimes you wanna howl at the moon and you say, "Is this all there is?" And I don't think that that means that we're being unrealistic, I think it means that there is something else, because this is a universal human longing.” – Professor. J. Budziszewski
But I say, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Push me through the door, please. And sometimes... So, I was very fortunate, I have a wonderful wife and I have a family. It was great being a dad, now I’m a grandfather, and that’s terrific. I’ve got my faith. All this is great, I learned some things. But you know, even if you have all of that, and a lot of people can’t say that, this isn’t enough. Everybody says, you can have everything that you think you want. Everything, literally everything that you think you want, you can have... You can have friends, you can have a family, you can have love, you can have meaningful work, you can have this, and sometimes you wanna howl at the moon and you say, "Is this all there is?" And I don’t think that that means that we’re being unrealistic, I think it means that there is something else, because this is a universal human longing.
And what I came to find is that a number of authors have written about this, one of the greatest is Thomas Aquinas, and I wrote a book about his theory of happiness on Ultimate Purpose. It’s not this book, this is my own take. Strongly influenced by him. So, he helped me along this way, too. If you think about it, if we want something that cannot really be found in this world, is that just a delusion? Well, if it’s a natural desire, it’s very difficult to say that’s a delusion. We are hungry, but you know there is food. We desire love, but you know, there is such a thing as love. So, if there’s something that we can’t find in this world that we have a natural desire for, it’s at least the reasonable approach to take to say, is it found out of this world? If it isn’t found in the created order, do we have to start thinking about the creator here?
And so at the very last part of the book, I talk about this. So, I don’t know, that’s a kind of a disorganized answer to your question, it’s partly my personal experience, it’s partly my studies, it’s partly my reflection on this, it’s partly the great benefit of a lot of wise people who have written about this over the years.
Karina: Well, I thought that was a fantastic answer. And a lot of the people who watch this podcast are young people like me, who are definitely setting out to take on their life. And so learning a lesson like this at such a young age, I think would be a fantastic edge up. Like you said, you went through so many trials and errors to get to ultimately being able to write this book. So, if they can learn from what you learned along the way, I think that would be fantastic.
And so, kind of finishing out the interview, what is it that you hope people can get from this book? Do you think that people can find true happiness, maybe not just through reading this book, but using this as a stepping point, or what is it that you want people to get out when they finish reading this book?
Budziszewski: I believe that happiness... True happiness, abiding happiness can be found. I will not claim that the perfection of happiness with no fragmentation, no imperfection, no unfulfilled longing can be found in this life. But I think that it can be found, and I think that the direction can be found in this life. And so I really do want people to find it. Sure, I do. I also would like people to learn to avoid some of the enormous mistakes, so many people... I’ll give you an example. One of the possible answers to the question of, what is happiness that’s a wrong answer, is power. Now, power has a bad reputation. People will say, "Oh, I don’t want power. I don’t want power." But they will say things like, "Oh, I want responsibility. I’d like a managerial position, I’d like... I’d like a more elevated position, I’d like to supervise... " Sure, they want power.
There’s something plausible here. We have to have the power to organize our own lives. For instance, how can I raise my children if I don’t have the power to provide for them and to protect them from malign influences? But to think that power in itself is gonna make you happy is crazy. So, I want people to understand, to be able to... In every mistake, this is one of the things I’ve learned in life, in every error, there’s always some grain of the truth, or nobody would fall for it. The problem is, and what makes it an error is that some... That little grain of truth is twisted. The greatest lawyer... Not lawyers, some people would say it’s a synonym. The greatest liars all know this, they mix as much truth into their lies as they can, and then they have that little twist at the end. I wanted...
So, one of the purposes of this book is to alert people and to help them to avoid those little twists that make even some partial insights go wrong. And I want to encourage them that they don’t have to despair, they don’t have to give up. There is a way through this.
Karina: Wow, well, I think that is a fantastic place to end this interview, and I know this was just a snapshot of your book, but I hope after watching this, people are really encouraged to read it and just see what it’s about, even if they only get through a little bit from it, I think it’s fantastic just to avoid making some of the mistakes that people can fall into. So, thank you so much and I’m so glad you wrote this book, and I really hope it helps people, so thank you so much.
Budziszewski: Thank you.
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