The Limits of Material Happiness: A Christian Reflection

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It has been said that happiness is a state of mind and a relative term. Our views on happiness are determined by our mental frames which are reflections of our own cultural orientation as members of a particular community. For Christians, happiness is not only limited to material happiness. The Christian concept of happiness goes beyond the material world and the satisfaction of our sensual needs. In fact, the Church’s teaching on the 7 deadly or cardinal sins includes gluttony. The word “gluttony” comes from the Latin word gula which is derived from gluttire which means “to gulp down or swallow”. Gluttony is the inordinate, over-indulgence, and over-consumption of food, drink, or material things that provide much pleasure to the body.


The Church does not discourage people to enjoy consumer goods that provide pleasure and material happiness to people. But consumption must be done in moderation. As embodied beings, we are entitled to the enjoyment of God’s creation and human goods and services. But we must avoid inordinate attachment, i.e., our life is not tied up with material goods, we don’t crave for things that are unnecessary in life and detrimental to our spiritual life with God.


In Church teaching, happiness is, above, spiritual in nature. True happiness is the spiritual joy of being in the state of grace and of knowing that one is following God’s will. The happiness of parents of seeing their children praying or doing their duties in school is a spiritual joy that lasts in their memories even after death. The consolation we experience when we pray to God is a spiritual joy that can propel us to be with the divine in the afterlife. In other words, spiritual happiness is lasting, while material happiness is fleeting.


Material happiness has limits. We may have achieved our personal goals. We may have acquired much wealth and fame, but the end of the day we still remain mortal and moving towards our own death. The great Steve Jobs may have reached the pinnacle of success in business and innovation for co-founding the tech giant Apple. But when he was stricken with cancer and was dying, he acknowledged what that lingers in people’s memory are not achievements, pleasures, and material success in life, but the loving memories of the things we care about that make our loved ones and other people happy. In other words, he is referring to our spiritual joys which are indeed lasting!


Material happiness is like eating our favorite cuisine. After we have savored it and satisfied our craving, the sense of pleasure immediately vanishes. And it is only a matter of minutes that we crave again for another type to continue the pleasure of eating. Some Roman gluttons were said to intentional vomit the food they just ate in order to feel hungry again and to continue to feel the pleasure of tasting their sumptuous meal.


The fleeting moment of material satisfaction can also be illustrated in buying a new luxury car. After using it a couple of days or would probably after a week, the excitement and pleasure of driving our dream car would immediately subside. And the desire of acquiring a new car which is better than the previous model would probably surface in our dreams.  We enter into an endless cycle of craving and pleasure to satisfy our insatiable material desires. This also the case of people who find happiness in sex, drugs, and other forms of material pleasure. Material happiness is indeed very temporary.


Contrast this material pleasure with spiritual joy and happiness of helping and loving our loved one and people who are in need. Our loving memories of the good we do to others do not just fade away in our consciousness but can linger even up to our last breath. That’s why people capture memorable moments in selfies, groupies, posts, videos, digital photos and pictures to remind them of their treasured happy memories. This is not say that we should disregard our material desires and suppressed them altogether, but we have to be conscious of their limits and not be imprisoned by our inordinate attachment to material pleasures, thereby losing sight of our spiritual journey in life.


Seeing life from the point of view of death has been recommended by great saints and thinkers. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for instance, recommended a meditation on death to make us more humble and see the limitations of our being or what the great philosopher Martin Heidegger calls a human person as a “being-towards-death”, and to feel our vulnerability on the face of death and remove the last vintages of pride within us.

Again, Steve Jobs is one of the most innovative and charismatic leaders in the American business world and has been idolized by millions of his fans worldwide for his technological innovation and vision and for co-founding Apple and its innovative products. And yet, he has acknowledged the limits of success and accumulation of wealth. In the face of death, everything fades except our loving memories of people.  In our dying bed, we recall these memories and thank our God for giving us the spiritual grace of genuinely loving other people, especially our family and friends or whoever that touched our life deeply.


Praise God for reading this post. If you feel that this post can help others, press click share! I pray that God will always guide you in your daily activities. God bless!

Photo credit: free photos

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