Religions perform many functions, amongst which is to make life more understandable, acceptable, meaningful, controllable and, not the least important, enjoyable, if not in this life, then at least in the hereafter or in a recycled life. Religion that rules out happiness debases the human spirit.
Most religions, though, do make room for happiness. Indeed, happiness is, if not an ultimate value, a key concept. For example, the ancient Hindu text, Rig-Veda, says, “To us vouchsafe to see a hundred autumns: May we attain to lives prolonged and happy.” In the Upanishad you find, “From joy springs all this creation, by joy it is maintained, toward joy it progresses and into joy it enters.” In the Buddhist Pali Canon, Anguttara Nikaya, householders are instructed to perform four good deeds. The first mentioned is to make family and friends happy.
“Blessed” is a word found throughout the Jewish Bible. It refers to the highest form of happiness that one can experience. While blessedness emanates from God, one experiences blessedness in this life. In the beginning, it is written, God created the heaven and earth and God blessed Adam and Eve. The psalms enjoin people to come to God in joy. Seven blessings are recited at a Jewish wedding. The blessings refer to less exalted forms of happiness. One asks God that “the sounds of joy and of happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play always be heard in the cities of Israel and in the streets of Jerusalem.”
The Talmud comments that the seasons were given to Jews for no reason other than for their enjoyment. Performing good deeds is central to Judaism and those deeds should always be performed in an attitude of joy. Rabbis used the phrase simchah shel mitzvah, meaning good deeds should be performed with a sense of joy. But it also can mean that the performance of good deeds brings joy to the doer.
In counteracting the view that Catholic morality is a gloomy affair, the Archbishop of Westminster, England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor picks up the Christian story about 1,000 years after its founding by noting that “for Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all Catholic theologians, morality is rooted in the most basic and universal desire, the yearning for happiness and fulfillment.” A misogynistic reading of religion misses the point completely: religion is to be life enhancing, not life denying; it is aimed at bringing joy, not melancholy. Murphy-O’Connor continues, “A responsible and truthful consideration of that desire gives rise to an ethic of human flourishing, which is rooted in human nature, rather than in a set of laws imposed from outside. In other words, moral discernment is a response to the fundamental question: what kind of person am I called to become?”
There is a counter-tradition in religion represented in Christianity by the Protestants Luther, Calvin, and others. For them human nature is fatally corrupted and, therefore, happiness is not a possibility in this life. Indeed, you shouldn’t even aim for happiness. Salvation comes through grace alone, a condition beyond your control. Your only task in this life is to do your duty toward God. Still, even here happiness isn’t absent completely. It is postponed for a future state. Happiness is held out as the reward. Heaven is the place where all is bliss. Pain, sorrow, misfortune and every other travail are absent. Happiness (bliss) abides in the splendor of God.
There is also a tradition in Islam that is exemplified by a banner hoisted during a demonstration in Iran: “The nation for whom martyrdom means happiness will always be victorious.” For those seeking martyrdom, the highest this life has to offer is death brought about in service to God. The goal, though, remains happiness.
The difference, then, between various religious philosophies rests on whether happiness is achievable in this lifetime or whether it must wait. There is no disagreement about whether happiness is a good in and of itself, only the place where it is available.