Can Non-Believers be Truly Happy?

It’s true that happiness can be achieved without having faith but that’s only temporary happiness. You’ll find very few faithless people who are truly satisfied with their lives , and I believe that true satisfaction can only be achieved through faith.

On the other had, a non-believer can sometimes achieve happiness through other worldly things.   i.e.  For some, happiness is due to the material wealth they obtain, to being able to spend their money as they like, to buying whatever they want and consuming more and more each day.

For people like that, consumption, experiencing every beauty and pleasure, is the greatest source of happiness in their lives.

Yet, such desires are like a bottomless well — they never come to an end. Because of their desires people emerge who are never satisfied with anything they obtain, who always want more and better,  and who believe that they will be able to live happier lives if they acquire more things, and better things. However,  all their efforts only gain them a temporary happiness.

— An Internet Acquaintance

Every now and then, someone has come along to tell me that, because I don’t believe what he or she believes, I am not as happy as I could be.  Sometimes they even tell me I am not happy at all.  Now, my first, gut reaction to this “news” is almost always the same: I think they are a lunatic.

That’s my first impression, my gut impression.  I think it a modest insight.  It says a little, but not much.  For anyone who goes around saying, “You are not truly happy because you do not believe what I believe”, is to some extent a lunatic, are they not?

They might be many things besides a lunatic.  They might be arrogant.  They might be foolish.  They might be ideologically intoxicated.  They might not know up from down.  But we should not be surprised to find they suffer from one psychiatric disorder or another.

Of course, someone can be both a lunatic and, at the same time, right.  I know this because I myself am both a lunatic and at least sometimes right.  And, since it is possible to be both a lunatic and right about something, we cannot logically reject the lunatic’s notion that, “You are not truly happy because you do not believe what I believe”, on the mere grounds that it is a lunatic who says it.

So, is there anything at all really wrong with that notion?  Can non-believers be truly happy?  Or is the lunatic right to claim non-believers cannot be truly happy?

Well, my internet acquaintance who I quote above would argue that anyone who fails to believe what he believes cannot be truly happy.  As he puts it, non-believers can be happy, but their happiness is only temporary.

To me, that seems to imply he thinks believers such as himself have achieved enduring, constant, or permanent happiness. But is belief or faith sufficient to produce enduring, constant, or permanent happiness?

It would be silly to think so, wouldn’t it?

Who is there among us who does not know at least one believer who is both faithful and unhappy?  I myself know several, but I do not know any believers who are both faithful and always happy.

It seems believers can be happy, but their happiness is only temporary.  But if that is the case, then in that respect there is no significant difference between believers and non-believers.  I think my internet acquaintance has some explainin’ to do!

What are the real causes of human happiness?  It turns out the science on this matter is still in its infancy and very little of it seems at this point to be conclusive.  Nevertheless, there have been some interesting, but tentative, findings.  Among other things, it happens  the real causes of human happiness are apparently realizable even by non-believers.  What a surprise!

Dr. Alan Carr, writing in Positive Psychology: The Psychology of Happiness and Human Strengths, describes not one but several factors which studies have suggested contribute to or cause human happiness.  Among these factors are personality traits such as optimism and self-esteem; cultural traits such as living in a society with a high level of social equality; and so forth.  And I recall that other researchers than Carr have found that the quality of one’s friendships is extremely important to one’s overall level of happiness.

As for myself, I rather like something Aristotle once said about happiness, which he identified with well-being, self-flourishing or perhaps self-realization.  The relevant passage is difficult to translate, but here is a heavy paraphrase of it: “When choosing your life’s work, you will discover your happiness or bliss at that place where your individual talents and skills intersect with the needs of your society.”  Aristotle had much besides that to say about human happiness, but that’s my favorite.

Significantly, none of the science suggests the silly notion that non-believers cannot be truly happy. And even thoughtful sages like Aristotle give no indication that belief or faith is essential to genuine happiness.  Those particular notions appear to have been snatched from the clouds that surround the heads of at least a few proselytizing believers, rather than arrived at through research and reason.

To sum: It looks like my internet acquaintance is not only a lunatic, but a BS artist.  Of course, it is always fun to be BSed. So perhaps that is the real reason that very many of us non-believers are deeply happy these days — we are happy because we are  so often BSed by proselytizing believers such as my internet acquaintance.

At least that’s how I see it.  But what do you make of all this?

23 thoughts on “Can Non-Believers be Truly Happy?

  1. from where i come from, happiness has been tried by various people to be graded and debated etc
    i have heard many in various forums talk about ‘realized souls’ who are truly happy.
    i like the simple definition–“well being”
    so, wishing you happiness in the week

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  2. I grew up with the notion that only faithful Mormons had the key to happiness. “Wickedness” (i.e. sinning as defined by Mormon theology) never was happiness,” is an oft-repeated phrase from the Book of Mormon. Strangely, more anti-depressants are prescribed in Utah, the purported Mecca of happiness, than in most any other locale. I personally know several faithful Mormon women (in particular) who are either suffering from depression or religiously taking their meds so they don’t fall into that black hole.

    When I rejected faith and stopped trying to figure out “God’s will for me” and stopped making choices based on what I thought I was supposed to do — and instead finally embarked on the adventurous journey of learning what it meant to be true to myself, I found deep, enduring and true happiness for the first time. Suddenly, the colors were brighter, my emotions ran deeper, and life was more precious and had more meaning than it ever had. I felt alive.

    Your internet acquaintance uses his/her faith like a crutch. His/her quest for happiness is analogous to trying to find the perfect item of consumption at Walmart for ultimate fulfillment. S/he keeps buying the same heavily advertised and prepackaged shit that always disappoints, breaks down, wears out and falls short.

    The secret that the poor faithful don’t know: The only true happiness is self-created, and we don’t find it until we give ourselves permission to create our own.

    Cool post, Paul.

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  3. I’m always suspicious of anyone who is “always” happy, because it’s such an unnatural state of being. I know people of varying degrees of faith, and they all seem to have similar degrees of happiness… that is to say, they go up and down depending on the overall conditions of their lives. I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t/can’t be happy with the sort of life I lead, yet somehow I do not find myself unhappy and have many less things to worry about than they do

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  4. I think it’s ridiculous to assume that non-believers can’t be truly happy. Happiness is rooted in different things for different people, and it is arrogant to assume that everyone would find happiness in religion. As a general rule, however, I’ve found that genuinely happy people tend to have lives full of meaning and belonging, which are certainly NOT dependent on faith. Faith CAN provide these things, but it is not the only source.

    Speaking for myself, I was profoundly unhappy as a Catholic, and I’ve seen firsthand the unhappiness (and denial) that toxic religion can create in others.

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  5. Some people are only really happy when others are not… Add to that the fact that if they thought atheists could be truly happy then their deep internal struggle to keep god happy is a cruel joke.

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  6. CD: “When I rejected faith and stopped trying to figure out “God’s will for me” and stopped making choices based on what I thought I was supposed to do — and instead finally embarked on the adventurous journey of learning what it meant to be true to myself, I found deep, enduring and true happiness for the first time. Suddenly, the colors were brighter, my emotions ran deeper, and life was more precious and had more meaning than it ever had. I felt alive.”

    I’ve heard many former believers say the same and similar things, CD, but perhaps you have said it better than most in so far as you drive home the importance of being true to yourself.

    In a way, it’s simple: The Church is oppressive; leaving the oppressive Church is liberating. But nothing is as simple as it seems. To see through the lies, to cope with the disapproval of friends and family, to stand up to the authority of the Church, to leave the Church both physically and psychologically — all of that and more appears to be quite a complicated and difficult process for most people.

    Then again, the rewards of escaping oppression can be immense.

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  7. #4: Excellent point!

    CD, when someone tells me they “know I am unhappy because I do not believe what they believe”, I sometimes say, “No. You only know that I do not believe what you believe, and you are merely guessing that means I am unhappy.”

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  8. #7:

    Hi Kuri! It’s good to see you again!

    “Love and work.” I think that’s my second favorite recipe for happiness. My first, of course, is the recipe proposed by Aristotle that I mentioned in the post. But either one will usually work rather well.

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  9. #8:

    Wolf: “…if they thought atheists could be truly happy then their deep internal struggle to keep god happy is a cruel joke.”

    Spot on, Wolf! I don’t know of anyone who has a better appreciation for the absurdity of “struggling to keep god happy” than you do! I think of your perspective as essentially or mostly Native American. It’s a beautiful perspective!

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  10. My reaction to reading your acquaintance’s analysis is a bit like that of Cognitive Dissenter @4.

    In a nutshell, your friend demonstrates that if you don’t know anything about a given group of people (say, unbelievers) — and you don’t have any desire to find out what they’re like — you can just make stuff up.

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  11. Chanson: “In a nutshell, your friend demonstrates that if you don’t know anything about a given group of people (say, unbelievers) — and you don’t have any desire to find out what they’re like — you can just make stuff up.”[emphasis added]

    That’s so well said, and it’s worth repeating. Thanks, Chanson!

    I suspect the reason they don’t want to find out what nonbelievers are like is because it would upset their little applecart of a world. It’s pretty pathetic when your happiness seems threatened by the truth.

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  12. Just stumbled across your blog today Paul, really enjoying the articles.

    Personally I find it offensive when people presume to know how I feel (and I’m a hard person to offend). I think it is highly arrogant to think you can even begin to judge what is going on inside someone’s head.

    Happiness is a very subjective thing and what makes one person unhappy may make another happy. I have gone through times in which I was very unhappy, yet that emotional suffering was somehow enjoyable to me (perhaps I am a psychological masochist?). I’ve been pretty happy the past couple years and even miss the pain sometimes. Personally to me it is part of being human and painful emotions are just as important and just as much a gift as the pleasurable ones so maybe I am more easily able to embrace the bad with the good. For me it is incredibly life affirming to feel something so strongly, whether good or bad. So, in my opinion, even to say someone is unhappy and needs to change because they profess sadness and outwardly display signs of it is making an assumption.

    Also, I’d have to agree with Neela on the “I am the universe” statement. I had this realisation about a year ago and it was an incredibly amazing and calming realisation. Since then it is not something I consider often but every now and then something will remind me of it and it still fills me with wonder and a calm feeling of well being (it’s hard to put into words). I’m an atheist so this isn’t even so much a spiritual thing for me as just facts that I find amazing. When you consider that the matter that makes up our bodies comes from energy that is made from matter that is made from energy, etc. etc. that comes from stars, the planet, comets that have travelled the far reaches of our solar system; photons that travel from stars so distant we can’t even begin to comprehend the distance they travel to reach us and interact with the receptors in our eyes; the fact that there may be other life forms that we’ll never know about thousands, if not millions, of light years away that are contemplating the same things, these all fill me with a wonder and happiness I can’t begin to describe and that religion never gave me.

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    • Hi Pat! Welcome to the blog! Thank you for your kind words!

      Those are very good points about happiness. I think we really need a new term — something that can express a person’s willingness to affirm even the pain of life, as you have done. Happiness, in a way, is too narrow of a term to adequately encompass all that makes life worthwhile.

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  13. I think it would be best to say that all happiness for both believers and non believers is temporary just like everything around us in this world is temporary.

    There is a peace and joy that you can only experience through Jesus, but as for happiness it’s even quite possible for non believers to be happy more often then Christians. The reason I would say this is Christians know the big picture by revelation through the saviour. They know that sin both separates a person from God and that it equates death, and even hell. It is hard to be happy with material possessions, careers, talents, and worldly successes with knowledge that people are entering eternity without a saviour. It certainly is hard to be satisfied with these pursuits when your inner man has been transformed into the likeness of Christ. Now your desires become the Lords desires that none will perish and that all will come to repentance and trust in Jesus.

    Now I know the non believer point of view too for why happiness is more achievable. Happiness becomes somewhat of the whole purpose of existence for this view. Some attain the happiness from doing good works for others, also by putting their talents to use, or indulging in worldly pleasures and entertainment, gaining popularity with people or gaining better positions in the workforce, earning more money, having more things, having many friends to laugh with etc. Yet it’s all done in a view of the here and now with no thought of sin, or its eternal consequences. The idea of the seriousness of sin is made light of, and even thought of as a fairy tale to some; allowing them to fully pursue happiness without the guilt and conviction bringing them to question their way.

    Happiness for a believer can exist more temporarily in worldly entertainments because although they satisfy the flesh, the new man in Christ is not satisfied for his meat becomes doing the will of the Father. A person can find happiness and joy in doing Gods will, but the battle between the new life in Christ and the flesh will not always produce happiness. Also often times believers may be sad when they see those they love headed away from God who they now know. Someone showed a good example with the titanic. It would be lovely to be saved on one of the lifeboats among the survivors, but how happy can you be seeing so many dying in the sinking ship?

    They say ignorance is bliss and I would have to agree. Life can be full of happiness when we are living a fantasy, but it will be temporary when reality becomes visible and it’s too late to change course. (Yet there’s still hope now.)

    As for the believer they may at times struggle with happiness now. Yet there will come a time when they are only full of joy in the presence of their saviour and king, and living everlasting life.

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