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)
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.