Insights from Fulton Sheen’s Way to Happiness

The Venerable Fulton Sheen encouraged generations of the faithful through his radio and television broadcasts in the mid 20th century. The bishop’s words carried a weight unmatched in his popular television program Life Is Worth Living, where he spoke to a live audience without a script, often touching on important contemporary issues like communism and modernism. The show became a hit drawing 30 million viewers weekly, and Sheen became a celebrity. He even graced the cover of Time magazine, which referred to him as “the first televangelist.” 

Although his notoriety originally came due to his television and radio success, Sheen authored a number of books which have continued to inspire readers long after his death. Over the decades, his written words have proven to carry the same impact as his televised speeches. In this article we will dive into the work Way to Happiness. Although relatively concise (less than 100 pages), the work is a goldmine of wisdom that can teach us much about living a more joyous life.

The Cause of Unhappiness

Before discussing what can potentially make man happy, it is useful to identify what causes the initial condition of unhappiness in a person. According to Sheen, man is afflicted with a certain “tiredness of the mind” – his worries, anxiety, fear, and boredom. These feelings are the result of a tension in one’s mind between what is possible and what is actualized. Sheen writes:

“One basic reason for tiredness of the mind is the conflict in all of us between ideal and achievement, between what we ought to be and what we are, between longing and our having, between our powers and the incomprehensible mysteries of the universe.”

page iii

Anytime a child expects to receive a certain toy for Christmas and doesn’t, or a man acquires only a mediocre raise, or a woman finds her blind date doesn’t look like Brad Pitt, this tension exists. People are often perfectly capable of imagining a better world than the one they inhabit. To focus on the difference is a surefire way to achieve unhappiness. What is so revealing is that we are so good at imagining better. We are always aiming a little higher than what we have been given. 

So what are we aiming for?

Sheen claims that ultimately we are searching for 3 things: life, truth, and love. These ideals do not exist in their full condition here on earth, yet we are constantly seeking them:

“These three things are not to be found in this life in their completion: on earth life is shadowed by death, truth mingles with error, love is mixed with hate. But men know they would not long for these things in their purity if there were no possibility of ever finding them. So being reasonable, they search for the source from which these mixed and imperfect portions of life, love, truth derive.”

page iv

The fact that we search for this “source” proves that we were created for something higher than earthly goods, and our flailing attempts to obtain life, truth, and love in their entirety in this life is the cause of our unhappiness.

Humility: The Prerequisite for Joy

The recognition that we will never achieve pure goods here on earth can be demoralizing; what is equally demoralizing is the realization that we ourselves are less than ideal creatures. However this realization is the first step toward humility, which is the prerequisite for joy. Humility is a form of truth, one of the three ideals discussed above. Sheen writes:

“Humility is truth about yourselves. A man is six feet tall, but who says: “I am only five feet tall,” is not humble. He who is a good writer is not humble if he says: “I am a scribbler.” Such statements are made in order that there might be a denial and thus win praise. Rather he would be humbler who says: “Well, whatever talent I have is a gift of God and I thank Him for it.”

page 10

Humility is the true recognition that we are gravely inadequate in comparison to the ideals we strive for. As Sheen points out above, to lie in order to appear humble is not humility at all but the opposite since the desired reaction is praise. The ultimate form of humility is surrender to God – to know that all good comes from Him. Doing this will bring us a step closer to joy:

“…this perennial tension in man can be accepted and made bearable only by a surrender of the self to God. Then whatever happens is welcomed as a gift of love; frustration cannot happen to us for we have no clamorous, selfish will.”

page iii

True Joy is Not Affected By External Conditions

Since joy stems from humility, and humility is ultimately a surrender to God’s Will, then it follows that joy can be experienced anytime God’s Will is being achieved. Since God’s Will is always achieved, one can experience joy at all times – in both the good and bad times. Sheen notes that we feel joy in all times not for what we have, but for the things yet to come, all the more glorious for the trials we will have overcome to get them:   

“Joy can be felt in both prosperity and adversity. In prosperity it consists not in the goods we enjoy but in those we hope for;not in the pleasures we experience but in the promise of those which we believe without our seeing. Riches may abound but those for which we hope are the kind which moths do not eat, rust consume, nor thieves break through and steal. Even in adversity there can be joy in the assurance that the Divine Master Himself died through the  Cross as the Condition of His Resurrection.”

page 13

This explains why a poor family crammed into a small shack can have more joy than a materially successful couple in a lavish mansion. The poor family’s joy comes not from their current physical circumstances but the recognition that whatever could be materially offered on earth is nothing in comparison to the riches that abound in heaven. The rich family, believing their wealth to be the pinnacle of human success, find it unsatisfying, and without a strong faith in God they have nothing to hope for beyond what they have accumulated.

Pleasure Should be Moderated

Pleasure is not the same as joy. When pleasure is experienced in large quantities too often, it can begin to have a negative effect. If you eat too much candy, you will feel a rush of initial pleasure, but your joy will quickly diminish as you nurse a stomachache. This type of dopamine chasing is unsustainable, so Sheen points out that by moderating our pleasures we are able to reach a more stable state of joy:

“The secret to a happy life is the moderation of pleasures in exchange for an increase of joy.”

page 16

In addition to moderation, self-discipline and initial hardships help us to reach higher forms of pleasure:

“The most intense and lasting joys come only to those who are willing to practice a certain self-restraint, to undergo the boredom of a preliminary discipline.”

page 17

An example of this would be playing an instrument. If you practice hard for years, you will be able to play the piano beautifully, a pleasure that could not be experienced without the initial hardship. We’ve all experienced this to some degree: after a hard day’s work, dinner just tastes better; after eating healthy for a week, the ice cream is sweeter, etc. 

Sheen notes that ultimately pleasure is not a goal in itself. It is usually encountered as a by-product of the fulfillment of a duty or obedience to a law. We experience the pleasure of eating because we are fulfilling the duty of feeding ourselves, and thus sustaining life. We experience the pleasure of rest at the end of the day because we need to recharge for work the next day. Sheen sums up his thoughts on pleasure:

“To seek pleasure, regardless of law, is to miss it.”

(page 21)

Final Thoughts

I touched on just a few topics that Sheen discusses in Way to Happiness. The book covers a range of subjects including raising children, teenage insecurities, and the value of work. Sheen clearly draws his ideas from a wealth of personal experience, and his concise writing style makes an impression on the reader. After reading Way to Happiness, I’m all the wiser for it.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse for more content like this.

Books to Read

5 thoughts on “Insights from Fulton Sheen’s Way to Happiness

  1. Reblogged this on Zero Lift-Off and commented:
    He was a man of great faith and good service to our Lord!
    We should only do a bit of what he did and we are better for it!
    I last wrote to you and your blog back on 3/11/2020. Here is a piece of that which fits perfectly here.
    On Calvary I see how by that best of all examples as our Lord was actually here and finalizing His new and everlasting covenant on that cross, so the despots or fools who lived in sin were being crucified along each side of him but the one that had been cold to seeking our heavenly Father, seeing Jesus the Savior, had his own great epiphany talking to Jesus as they were dying and became hot for truth, and through his humble contrite heart at that juncture, he was saved as Jesus told him, “Verily I say to you today, you will be in paradise with Me.” I feel it’s pretty obvious we must be close to the end time and hopefully more people are going to awaken before it’s too late! God Bless You and Yours.
    Now I add today specifically what the Archbishop saw coming regarding Communism! Right where we are now with the evil in our White House and government overall.
    “Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven
    Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart
    Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
    And shall not soon depart.
    He, who, from zone to zone,
    Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
    In the long way that I must trace alone,
    Will lead my steps aright.”
    William Cullen Bryant
    Here is an excerpt from the essay that I had included that poem with.
    “[Satan] will set up a counter-church which will be the ape of the [Catholic] Church … It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content.”
    We are living in the days of the Apocalypse, the last days of our era. The two great forces – the Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of the anti-Christ – are beginning to draw battle lines for the catastrophic contest.
    The False prophet will have a religion without a cross. A religion without a world to come. A religion to destroy religions. There will be a counterfeit Church.
    Christ’s Church the Catholic Church will be one; and the false Prophet will create the other.
    The False Church will be worldly, ecumenical, and global. It will be a loose federation of churches and religions, forming some type of global association.
    (Fulton J. Sheen, ‘Communism and the Conscience of the West’)
    Read all of what the venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen foretold us!
    God bless you
    Brother in Christ Jesus,
    Lawrence Morra III

    1. Thank you Lawrence. The fact that you’ve kept up with ThinkingWest so soon after it began is truly humbling. It does often seem that we (this world) are near the end of times, and Fulton Sheen’s description of the end-time religions describes so accurately the state of Christianity, specifically Protestantism, today.

      1. I thank you Christian, for all of your valuable insights and humble efforts in your serving our Lord Jesus Christ. What you said here is absolutely accurate and I’m sad to say I’ve run into so many so called Christians that are so blind or proud to see what they are doing is so contrary to Christ’s actual teaching and what he left Peter in charge of, to follow through and establish during the Roman Empire, but, these people today are so pious and sometimes foolish to think they know better to trample on what was the infancy of the Church of Jesus Christ; because people like the Calvinists or Martin Luther much later stomped upon so much good justifying that action by pointing out some flaw in the church hierarchy and canon laws, but, they fail to realize that the Devil right from the beginning was seeking to dislodge the faithful and confuse the flock; so the point obvious that Luther was serving a diabolical purpose just like Bergoglio is now eluded their judgment! We have much to sift through but the core of the teaching of the Church and the Truth that God provided cannot be changed and as Jesus said!

        Peter’s Confession of Christ
        “17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Mathew 16:18.

        You see Christian, I’m nobody and I’m happy with that as when I was a younger buck I wanted to be accomplishing worldly things that I began to, getting into the Big Time Hollywood but saw from that perspective it was like the vanities of vanities all foolish and worthless to me, not worthy of my soul and efforts so I went onto live a more humble hard working life, out of public view, but, then I was attacked by evil and God provided to me from all of my suffering an insight that I would have missed otherwise, so now it’s quite crystalline and unequivocally clear to me that my mission is to love Jesus Christ with all my heart which I still must work on more and then to serve God the Father and do His will, no matter what; that will be!

        So you see my friend I am an idiot at times because being human I lose my cool or say something too brash not meaning any harm but I just can’t be a perfect man and I fail at times to keep myself in full grace! I know Jesus has been there to help me up again and again giving me countless chances because I know He knows that I’m aware there is a mission for me here yet, and I want to do it, so I will; but I have to get there and then the moment of truth will arrive for me to be put to the test! But I’m not going to fail because evil has tried to destroy me and it failed, and will continue to fail if it dare try; my heart belongs to Jesus Christ so it’s hopeless for the Devil to even attempt to take it. Thus I’m wearier of people now than ever in my past, as I learned the hardest way they can’t be trusted; trust must be earned over time and with value along with integrity that proves itself out and not too many people are willing or capable of doing so much for another! My Grandmother, Mother and Father always did and were willing to; I say give their lives to prove their love for me! Nobody else has or will do that on this earth that I’ve met! So Jesus not just for what the Biblical teachings say is where my total alliance should be, but even in just practical terms it can’t be anything but that! Fulton Sheen was a true prophet and spoke only the truth and I love him! You’re right all that he said is spot-on! He was and is a man of God! I wrote a recent essay where a Presbyterian church is now promoting abortion and they just are obviously a synagogue of Satan. The devil rules many Christian denominations now yet they will attack all of the great and good history of the Roman Catholic Church as if they have some pious prophetic zeal that out shines the light of God that poured from someone like Fulton Sheen!

        Look what I wrote a while back as I still get attacked by other Christians as well Muslims from time to time!

        Many are being led astray now more than ever before and Satan is going to “amp up” his game big time as the months and years ahead go by because he knows his time is running out to snatch away souls, which is his only goal before the final judgment arrives.

        Thank you for this fine inspiring work you do.
        God bless you and yours.
        Brother in Christ Jesus,
        Lawrence Morra III

      2. Thanks. I checked out what you wrote about engaging with other folks – and their subsequent attacks on you and Catholicism. I find it hard to take their attacks seriously, such as calling Catholicism sympathetic to Nazism and the like. They seem ridiculous in their attacks, and I commend your noble efforts to sway them otherwise. But some do not want a genuine discussion and don’t care for what is true. Those commenters seem only intent on smearing you and the Church. To such, I say farewell.

  2. Christian, I agree with everything you said here! I do tend to allow myself at times to be sucked into a fool’s errand or quagmire and waste precious time and energy on those that are not going to change or who are actually guided by lies; being blind and some prefer that over the truth!

    “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”
    ― Mark Twain

    Most important; as Jesus told His disciples; “14And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
    Matthew 10:14,15
    God bless you.

Leave a Reply