Practicing the joy of the Gospel

Pope Francis gave us his Evangelii Gaudium, “Joy of the Gospel,” as his summary of the Church’s approach to the New Evangelization we all need. Christopher Kaczor, philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, has recently published “The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology” (Image Books, Penguin Random House), as a guide to living the Gospel and thus achieving personal happiness. In doing so, he draws extensively on the new science of positive psychology to demonstrate that Christian practices like prayer, gratitude, forgiveness, and virtue have been demonstrated to increase people’s happiness here and now, and not just in the hereafter. For example, “people who strongly believe in God are more than twice as likely to report being happy as those who do not believe in God.”

Chris is a good friend of mine, whom I have known since his undergrad days at Boston College 20 years ago. Last spring he returned to Boston to give a preview of his research, mesmerizing a new generation of undergrads. For, as he states in his book, “positive psychology provides empirical evidence that Christian practices, such as forgiveness, service, and love of neighbor, enhance human well-being.” 

Of course, there was a time in living memory when psychology, with its Freudian prejudices against religion, and focus on pathological mental conditions, was generally perceived as antithetical to Catholicism, “alternative ways to pursue happiness.” What Kaczor discovered “was that these two approaches are often complementary, and indeed can be mutually reinforcing — psychology —indicates ways to enhance Christian Spiritual practices. At the same time, Christian wisdom enhances and deepens recommendations found in positive psychology. So, rather than think it is either psychology or Spirituality, ideally it can be both psychology and Spirituality.” 

Using the framework developed by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman, happiness is understood as positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement (PERMA). “At the heart of happiness is good relationships with people. The findings of positive psychology reinforce the ancient teachings of Aristotle that no one can be happy without friends.” 

An illustration of the benefits of the “Gospel of Happiness” is found in the “Three Blessings Exercise.” “At the end of the day, simply think over how the day went looking for whatever went well — a tasty nectarine at lunch, a funny conversation with a neighbor, a task finally off the ‘to do’ list, or a moment of relaxation with hot coffee. When we look for what is good we are more likely to find and celebrate what is good. When we thank God for the joys we find in life, our gratitude is enhanced.” 

The practice of forgiveness does not just benefit the persons forgiven, it increases the happiness of the person who forgives. Holding onto grudges is a great way to make yourself unhappy. As we pray in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

Kaczor says, “One of the most interesting parts of the book is the final chapter about weakness of will. Good people want to do the right thing, but sometimes they actually do what is bad. Fortunately, contemporary psychologists offer ways to strengthen willpower. These discoveries — many of which were discovered centuries earlier by the saints — can help people live the message of Jesus more consistently.” 

This book is a great read, an important and extraordinarily positive manifesto on living the faith cheerfully in today’s challenging environment. If you want to learn how to be happy, then read “The Gospel of Happiness.” If you want to actually be happy, then put it into practice.  

Anchor columnist Dwight Duncan is a professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in civil and canon law.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts