An analysis of “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’” by C. S. Lewis
In an essay titled “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’,” C. S. Lewis writes of an incident that most likely brought a fair bit of attention at the time (approx. 50 years ago). A husband divorced his wife for another woman, who in turn left her husband to marry this man. The first wife, as a result, committed suicide.
The belief of the man who left his wife and of a woman named Clare – with whom Lewis discussed the issue – firmly rested in the opinion that the man had a “right to happiness” no matter what the cost. C. S. Lewis pointed out that a “right” is something we are legally allowed to do, however the stance of those who argued the right to happiness spoke of more than just a legal right. They referred to the “right to happiness” as more of a moral right.
Although we do have a legal right to pursue happiness – as long as our methods lie within a legal framework – do we have a “right” to happiness when our pursuit lies outside of a moral framework? In the fifty years since Lewis’ essay was written, we are answering that question through the lives we live and the happiness we pursue.
I would venture to say that society at large, and the individuals within it, are finding this hot pursuit to be not much more than ashes between their teeth. Perhaps we need to rethink what happiness is, from where it comes, and how to truly attain it.
Two years ago, a situation similar to the one C.S. Lewis wrote of made the news in a nearby city. In February of 2012, a 41-year-old Modesto teacher left his wife and children to pursue a relationship with an 18-year-old student who attended the high school where he taught. This teacher was interviewed by the Modesto Bee, and he stated, “In making our choice, we’ve hurt a lot of people. We keep asking ourselves, ‘Do we make everyone else happy or do we follow our hearts?’” (Modesto, par. 5)
His question sounds almost noble, as if everyone else is on one side, and just the two lovers stand alone for the cause of following one’s heart and pursuing happiness.
C. S. Lewis writes in his book The Four Loves, “When lovers say of some act that we might blame, ‘Love made us do it,’ notice … how devoutly they say the word love, not so much pleading an extenuating circumstance as appealing to an authority. … It seems to sanction all sorts of actions they would not otherwise have dared. The pair can say to one another in an almost sacrificial spirit, ‘It is for love’s sake that I have neglected my parents—left my children—cheated my partner—failed my friend at his greatest need’” (Four 156).
In the above quote from The Four Loves, as well as in the following quote from “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness,’” Lewis brings attention to the special “rights” that we tend to give to anything done in the name of love: “Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behavior which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust” (Collected 518).
Today, especially in the western world, the alpha and omega of happiness often centers on whether or not we have found “love” – which more specifically seems to be synonymous with sexual satisfaction and compatibility. Is finding “love” – or at least emotional and sexual satisfaction – the only road to happiness? Where did that idea even originate? Historically, what did happiness mean and how was humanity to pursue it?
The Greek word eudaimon translates into the word “happy.” In its exact translation, eudaimon means “good spirit.” The understanding in Greek tradition was that for someone to be happy, their lives would need to be blessed by the gods. According to author Darrin M. McMahon, the notion of happiness “contains within it a notion of fortune—for to have a good daimon on your side, a guiding spirit, is to be lucky—and a notion of divinity, for a daimon is an emissary of the gods who watches over each of us” (Happiness 3-4). Later the author points out that in conventional Greek thinking, “Happiness is almost always a miracle, requiring the direct intervention of the divine” (Happiness 9).
We learn from McMahon’s research in his book that happiness is traditionally synonymous with words such as “luck, fortune, or fate” (Happiness 10). The idea is that we, as mere humans, have no place in determining whether or not we will be happy. It’s all a matter of chance. In “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’” Lewis seems to merge these two concepts when he states, “I believe … that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstance outside all human control” (Collected 519).
So then what is happiness?
Is it something we have the right to pursue by any (legal) means available?
In reply, I pose yet another question. What is the guarantee that the item sought will bring lasting happiness? Let us consider the subject of marriage, as it is the central subject of Lewis’ essay, as well as of the Modesto man who left his wife and children to pursue happiness with a teenager. How likely are these individuals to find greater happiness with their second marriages? In a website focused on divorce information, we find an interesting fact about this. Divorcerate.org tells us that the chance of divorce increases with each subsequent marriage. The divorce rate in America for someone’s first marriage is 50%. With a second marriage, it goes up to 67%. If someone marries a third time, there is a 74% percent chance that the marriage will end in divorce (Divorcerate.org, par. 9).
Second- and third-time divorcees do not appear to be increasing their chances at happiness. Quite the opposite, it seems that the more someone attempts to find a quick fix through divorce, the less likely that individual is to find happiness on their second or third try. But don’t they have the right to try again? Isn’t it one of our most inalienable rights to pursue happiness, whatever that might mean for the individual?
Is happiness a blessing from the gods, something over which we have no power? Or is it something we should seek after by any and all means, because we are the only ones who have the power to bring true happiness to ourselves?
Or is happiness something else altogether?
Mother Teresa, a woman who personified joyful service to the world for many years said this about finding joy: “Joy is a sign of union with God, of God’s presence” (Joy 267). She lived out her union with God by spending years caring for the poorest of the poor in the slums of India and training others to do likewise.
The idea of finding joy through service to God and others originated with the words of Jesus, which were at odds with the ideals of the world in His day: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven” (Bible). The Greek word for “blessed” – makarios – is “extremely fortunate, well off, and truly happy” (Beatitudes, par. 3).
Not much has changed in two thousand years; we still seek after happiness and joy through fleeting experiences, only to find it eludes our grasp in any lasting manner. C. S. Lewis ended his essay saying, “Though the ‘right to happiness’ is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little long, our civilization will have died at heart” (Collected 519).
Many today would suggest that, in order to find happiness, one must seek it in their own way. I agree that the exact road to happiness will vary for each person. But I would caution against seeking after it by following the usual road that society emphasizes through countless romantic comedies, steamy romance novels, and billboards that urge us, “Buy this and you will be happy. Try this and you will be complete.”
Perhaps we should try something a little bit different.
Giving instead of taking.
Loving instead of hating.
You might not be the next Mother Teresa, but your perception on happiness just might change. Better yet, you may yourself more likely to find happiness through these means than by dashing off in hot pursuit of happiness using any and all means available.
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Divorcerate.org. Home page. Divorcerate. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. Print.
—. The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. New York: Inspirational Press, 1996. Print.
McMahon, Darrin M. Happiness: A History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006. Print.
“Modesto teacher resigns, moves in with 18-year-old student.” latimes.com. Los Angeles Times: L.A. Now. 29 Feb. 2012. Web.
Schurman, Virginia. “The Beatitudes: Pathways of Living in True Joy and Peace.” tractassociation.org. Tract Association of Friends. n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Teresa, Mother. The Joy in Loving. Ed. Jaya Chalika and Edward Le Joly. New York: Penguin, 1996.
The Bible in New International Version. New International Version. Biblica, 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.