On Happiness

From “And they shall be one flesh"

Archpriest Nicholai Guryanov Archpriest Nicholai Guryanov
There are conflicting ideas about happiness; some think it is a sum of earthly good things, a kind of social welfare package that makes a person’s life comfortable and carefree. Each to his own, but nevertheless, in this case you either got lucky and are happy, or you are left to drag out the pitiful existence of the luckless. This idea of happiness is primitive and over-simplified.

Happiness is immaterial—it is a state of the soul. Of course, people understand happiness in various ways. Some find it in their family, others go to a monastery to dedicate their whole lives to God; for a monk, that is happiness. Some have no family but find happiness in laboring for the good of people, because this labor brings joy to himself and others. Another may have nothing at all, but he is still happy. He is happy because the weather outside is good and he has no sickness at the moment. There are all different kids of people. And to the contrary, a person may have everything: health, material wealth, a good family… He has only to live and rejoice, but he is still unhappy, does not appreciate it all, and is always discontented with one thing or another.

Thus, happiness does not depend on material conditions of life—it is within a person, in his own soul: The kingdom of God cometh not with observation… behold, the kingdom of God is within you (Lk. 17:20-21). This, as we have said, is a state of the soul: the ability to appreciate everything given to us, and to thank God for it.

Every day can give us happiness; we must only be able to see it.

One priest used to counsel his spiritual children to end every day by writing down no fewer than fifty things, “that you should thank God for.” Without the ability to see something joyful and bright in every day, not only can we not be happy, we cannot even live a normal life. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a story called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In it is described an ordinary day of a prisoner in a strict-regime concentration camp. However, this story is not about the horrors of camp life, but about how one man, in what would seem to be utter darkness, manages to see something good and positive.

He receives an extra piece of bread and he can almost taste it, he thinks about how he is going to eat it; suddenly he unexpectedly finds a piece of a saw and is able to make from it a cobbler’s knife and earn a little money. He is able to avoid solitary confinement—that is a great joy. Ivan Denisovich even finds pleasure in work. First of all, he can warm himself by work and the frost doesn’t get to him so badly, and secondly, as a former peasant he loves labor, he likes doing what he know how to do well. The hero of the story always tries to see good human qualities in everyone around him. He greatly appreciates the help and support of his comrade prisoners. Even in prison, in solitary confinement this person does not fall out of life, and every day brings him joy.

Once a certain priest went to visit the now reposed elder Archpriest Nicholai Guryanov and told him about the sorrows and problems he was having. Fr. Nicholai heard him out and said, “Rejoice!” “What is there to rejoice about?” The priest thought to himself. But the elder went on, “Rejoice that you were born, rejoice that you are baptized, rejoice that you are in the Orthodox faith, rejoice that you are still alive!” And perhaps the words of the Apostle Paul: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess. 5:16-18) is the formula for happiness? It is the ability to be joyful about life, to always be with God and to thank Him for all that he sends us.

St. John Chrysostom says, “If something good happens, bless God, and it will remain good. If something bad happens, bless God, and the bad will cease. Glory be to God for all things!”

We not only have to know how to see happiness in our lives, but we also have to be careful with regard to it, and not spill it. There is an oriental fable on this theme. A certain youth asked his father, “What is happiness?” And his father sent him to a well-known wise man. So, the young man went to the famous teacher expecting to see an ascetic, but the man turned out to be rather wealthy, possessing a fine palace filled with works of art. The youth came to the palace and asked the wise man, “Teacher, tell me what happiness is.” The teacher gave him a small spoon filled it with olive oil, and said, “Walk around my palace, look at all the treasures and beautiful works of art inside it, and when you return tell me what you saw. But in doing so, make sure that you do not spill the oil from the spoon.” In a little while the youth returned and told the man all about that he had seen, adding that as he looked around at the treasures, all the oil spilled out of his spoon. Then the wise man filled the spoon again with oil and repeated the request. When the youth returned and the teacher asked him what he had seen, the boy said, “I couldn’t see anything in your palace because I was making sure not to spill any oil.” And truly, he brought the spoon back without spilling a drop. “Happiness is in this,” said the wise man. “In being able to preserve the gift that you have, and not waste it.” This parable tells us that by looking at all the wealth and beauty that does not belong to us, that was not given to us, we are not only unable to see them clearly, but we also loose what we do have.

Some people (and there are many) chase all their lives after the bird of happiness, the unreachable ideal, seeking happiness in one marriage, then in another, a third, getting disappointed and then falling in love again. They are passing by their own happiness, and life passes them by. Such people are deeply unhappy. The English author and thinker G. K. Chesterton has a wonderful saying about this: “Faithfulness to one woman is a small price to pay for seeing at least one woman. Complaining that you can only marry once is like complaining that you can only be born once. This is incompatible with the great experience that we are talking about, and reveals not exaggerated sensuality, but a strange insensibility. Only a fool would be dissatisfied that he cannot enter Eden through five gates. Polygamy is a lack of love, it’s like distractedly grabbing up ten priceless pearls.”[1]

In speaking of happiness in general and about family happiness in part, it is impossible not to touch upon the subject of love, for love and happiness are two sisters; these concepts are closely related to each other. One wise man said, “Happiness does not mean being happy yourself, but making other people happy.” This thought could be expanded: “Whoever makes others happy is happy himself.” After all, the possibility to love, to give others happiness, is the manifestation of God’s image in us. In this we make ourselves like unto God Himself. The Lord creates the world and man precisely out of love. God cannot but pour out His love and care for people, for He Himself is Love.

And of course, the only person who is truly happy is the person who knows how to love and to give love and happiness to others.

There used to be a slogan here that went, “Man is the forger of his own happiness.” At first glance this sounds a little haughty, but if you think about it, there is no contradiction with Christianity in it. After all, happiness directly depends on our relationship to reality; on how we build our lives, relate to others, and appreciate all that God sends us.

Priest Pavel Gumerov
Translation by OrthoChristian.com


[1] This quote is reverse translated from the Russian, and may not be Chesterton’s exact words.—Trans.
damjan10/19/2019 11:54 pm
Thoughtful article! I try to concentrate on my glass being always half full....if I succeed, I am already half way to happiness.
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