By Matt Fradd
Matt Fradd is the creator and host of the Pints With Aquinas podcast. He is the author and coauthor of several books including How to Be Happy: Saint Thomas' Secret to the Good Life.
What’s the secret to happiness? Every many on the street will give you an answer. But one of the most common traps we fall into is thinking that earthly possessions can make us happy.
Aquinas says that when we obtain God, or as we grow in relationship with him, we love him more and more. And this isn’t just true of God; this is true of those we begin to love in this life. When I first got married, I felt “in love” with my wife and couldn’t imagine being even more in love but now that I’ve been married fifteen years, I want to say to her, “You are way better than I thought you were when we got married, and back then I thought you were the best!”
But when it comes to artificial things, we don’t grow in that same love. Instead, we end up despising those things and we want something else to replace them. That’s why Aquinas says, “Hence it is written (Sirach 24:29): ‘They that eat me shall yet hunger,’ . . . which is the sense of Our Lord’s words (John 4:13): ‘Whosoever drinketh of this water,’ by which temporal goods are signified, ‘shall thirst again.’”
It wasn’t until I read the Summa Theologiae that I thought about the water our blessed Lord speaks of as signifying temporal goods, but it’s a wonderful point. Christ says to the woman who has come to draw water at the well in John 4:13, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again.”
What’s the latest thing you really wanted? I mean really wanted?
One example for myself was a wooden churchwarden tobacco pipe like the one Gandalf smokes in The Lord of the Rings. I actually won it in a bet and was really excited to get it. Now, to be fair, I didn’t place all my happiness in it, but I was really excited to get it.
And then when I got it, the most exciting thing was opening the box. Judging by the tens of millions of people who watch online videos that only consist of toys and trinkets being unwrapped, a lot of people feel the same way. But after you unwrap it, you feel like saying, “Okay. That’s good. Now what?”
We get really excited about obtaining these things, and then, as Aquinas says, we end up despising them. And he says the reason for this is that “we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them.” When we’re incapable of possessing things, we can mistakenly believe that, if we had them, they would make us happy (be it a thing or even a person with whom we are infatuated). But when we obtain them, we realize that they can’t fill the void in our hearts that is the root cause of our unhappiness.
In fact, there’s a whole movement of people who understand this and try to live a life of minimalism. They know that as we accumulate more stuff, we accumulate more worry about our stuff. We worry about it breaking, being stolen, or eventually fading in quality over time. We worry that other people won’t be impressed by our stuff or that we need newer stuff to make us happy because the old stuff is now inferior or obsolete in comparison.
There’s a classic study that I love to share with people who become obsessed with things making them happy. Researchers asked two groups of people about their current levels of happiness: people who had just won the lottery and people who had just been confined to wheelchairs because of an accident. They specifically asked them about how everyday interactions, like eating lunch or talking with friends, made them happy. It turns out that the lottery winners averaged 3.33 out of 5 when it comes to daily happiness, whereas the accident victims averaged 3.48 out of 5. Here’s how the authors of the study explain the lack of increased happiness among the lottery winners:
Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness.
Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth with gain: this also is vanity.”
Here’s a suggestion for you and me if we really want to take this to prayer. Imagine the kind of number that you think would suffice to make you secure, to make you feel secure and in control, and be as audacious as you like. Some of you might say $50,000. Others might say, “Hmm, one million. If I had one million dollars, then I could do what I want.” And all of us would say something like, “No, I wouldn’t be irresponsible. I’d donate some of it to charity or my church, but then I could just get on with the business of life.”
Put yourself in that position, and then imagine that you’re told by your doctor that you’re dying of some disease. At that point, nothing matters. None of that money matters to us at least. We might think about the good we can do with it, but as far as the security and control we thought it could buy us, it can’t. Jesus made the same point in a parable about a wealthy man who hoarded his money. God said to the man “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20–21).
Don’t get confused, however, in all this talk about money not making us happy, to think this means money is evil. In 1 Timothy 6:10 St. Paul says, “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.”
Paul doesn’t say money is the root of all evil. He says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (ESV). St. Thomas Aquinas defines sin as the result of loving creatures more than creator. Money (or anything) becomes evil when we love it more than God.
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What brings us real and lasting happiness? In How to Be Happy, author Matt Fradd relies on the help of St. Thomas Aquinas to show what will—and what won’t—bring us happiness in this life.