reviewed by Gavin Matthews
René Breuel’s little book, “The Paradox of Happiness” is a fascinating introduction to a hugely significant subject: human happiness. In a little over 80 short pages, he brings deeply incisive insights into the problem of unhappiness, and suggests a very distinct route out of it, into a genuine form of happiness. This is a pressing issue too, people everywhere are discussing happiness and wellbeing from politicians, to journalists and academics. It’s a subject that comes up regularly at Solas too, when we take outreach events in coffee shops, pubs and restaurants. People are interested in happiness, and why it is both so alluring and yet sometimes so elusive.
Humans long to be happy Breuel observes, and he doesn’t suggest for one moment that that is a bad thing. Rather, he would agree with Jefferson et al who commended the ‘pursuit of happiness’. He does though suggest that the contemporary Western world has misunderstood what happiness really is, and mislead us about where it can be found.
Firstly Breuel takes aim at the way in which happiness is conceived today. His critique is two-fold, that we have both individualised it, and severed it from values. He writes, “we have reduced happiness to the individual realm – from the ideal for the collective life for the flourishing of humanity and loving social relationships, into a private self-serving pursuit.” (p13). Then, “we have also severed the ethical root of the notion of happiness. Instead of it being conceived as a result of virtue, happiness is now thought of as something smaller and trivial – as fragmentary moments of pleasure.” The problem then is that no one can live in a state of constant pleasure (however well marketed the means to pleasure are), and even if they could – it would not deliver genuine happiness.
Breuel then suggests that, while many people would instinctively agree with much of that, our usual responses are inadequate. He explores that way that people can become sceptics (cynically rejecting fake happiness), consumers (in flat-out pursuit of pleasure, products and experiences) or fantasists (my true happy-self will be realised when I achieve a desired goal). The problem with each of these is that they are driven by the same logic; they are all self-seeking, self-orientated approaches, which simply re-enforce the problem of misery, albeit in different ways. The problem, Breuel argues is that self-focus is actually the thing that destroys happiness, especially relationships with others, and also with God. “Our satisfactions are restricted by our incurved egos, our happiness is confined by our self-centred posture.” (p25) The classic example is the selfish person who feels threatened, or resentful of others successes, compared the selfless person who is genuinely glad when they see others thriving.
Finally, Breuel presents an alternative, rooted in the teaching of Jesus – especially what he calls Jesus’ most ignored instruction; that to gain life we must lose it, and we lose life if we hold onto it; and that we should in some way ‘carry the cross’ as He did. (Matthew 16:24-6). This is what he calls the “Paradox of Happiness”, this “truth dressed up as absurdity”, that “while happiness remains the goal, it can never be found”, because true happiness is actually the “by-product of a correct orientation to life”. The Bible, he notes, urges us to pursue goodness, not happiness – but it turns out that “goodness is deliciously happy!”.
The book ends with an invitation, not to a better technique for pursuing happiness, (let alone mere pleasure), but to a complete reorientation to life. That means not merely “stepping off the hedonic treadmill“, but actively dethroning the ‘self’, and orientating life towards God and others. Happiness, as an ‘indirect-good’, then seems to arrive by surprise. Breuel commends a form of self-denial, not as a repressed, life-denying form of misery; but as the discipline and cost of putting God and others first, the goodness which is so happy. This paradox, Breuel believes is deeply rooted in the structure of the universe itself, because it in turn was made by a God, who is both giving, generous, and profoundly happy. So, he ends the book focusing on Christ who is our example, is present with us, and in whom we live this kind of life.
This is a great little book, which is both helpful, and very countercultural. Yet it speaks directly to one of the great needs of our day. There seems to be something of an epidemic of misery in our society today, (and while some of this is no doubt due to illness), surely a great deal of it is also due to our deep misunderstanding of the nature of happiness and its location.
My only criticisms of the book relate to the things that Breuel left out, or couldn’t include in such a small book. These include some kind of comment about depressive illness, which can strike people who fully embrace the principles he espouses. Christians are not immune to illness, after all. Also, a little clarification about exactly what it means to live ‘in Christ’ might have been helpful, especially as the crippling misery of a guilty conscience is one of the things he saves us from. Finally, he could have talked about the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, that Christ gives to His people (the comforter, love, joy, peace) etc. but that might actually make a good follow-up book.
These mild negative comments aside, this is a really worthwhile read, it is culturally relevant and astute; and finally Jesus centred. It’s mere 80 pages can be easily absorbed in a couple of hours too.
The Paradox of Happiness by Rene Breuel is available from bookshops and online.