Happiness and Marriage: Why St. Thomas Aquinas Probably Enjoys Pharell

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth…”

Despite the aggravating infectiousness of that song, I believe the secret to its success lies mostly in the fact that Pharell put his finger on something incredibly fundamental to what it means to be human.



Who among us hasn’t felt so inspired by good fortune or company that we would break into dance, song, or kiss a complete stranger on the forehead? Most of us would easily concede that happiness renders the mundane dynamic, leads us to the greatest mountain peaks, strengthens us to conquer our most challenging obstacles, compels us to love until our dying breaths, and inspires parents to pass on the traditions of ancestors passed in hopes of a better future. But does it actually? I think it depends on how it’s defined.

How many times have we heard someone cite the feeling of happiness as a rationale for their engagement, only to hear 4 years later that they are divorcing because one of them “just wasn’t happy anymore”? How could they have been let down by such an all-encompassing feeling? The truth is that they weren’t. They were let down by the fantasies the feeling of happiness afforded them. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that enshrines happiness as the ultimate end of all our endeavors. It’s not. But if Happiness isn’t the end-game, how should it be understood? I think St. Thomas Aquinas can help us out here.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that what humans really desire at all times is goodness, which he defines along with Aristotle as “What all desire” (ST I-I, Q.5, A.1, N. Ethics I). But, Saint Thomas notes, a thing is only desirous if it is perfect, and it can only be perfect if it exists objectively. So for Aquinas what we mean when we say that something is good is that it is perfect because of its actual existence. For example, there is no such thing as a good unicorn because no unicorn actually exists. It would be insane for one to speak of the acts or existence of a unicorn as good unless they spoke of it as a fictional character. When I say that Dracula is not good, I say so with the implicit understanding that you and I both know he isn’t real.

Aquinas continues, all things have a substantial form, a “ness,” or nature if you will. It is the very essence of the thing itself.  A dog has “Dogness” or dog nature. A duck has “Duckness” or duck nature. No amount of tinkering could ever take away its substantial form. In the middle of its life, Fido will not suddenly gain a fondness for the musical stylings of Amy Winehouse and learn to play her music on the piano. Such acts are not in accord with the dog’s substantial form, or nature.

Every substantial form is latent with potentialities, concealed realities in the substantial form that are yet to manifest. For instance, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader are substantially the same things. But Darth Vader is the name we give to Anakin as his potential for evil is fully made manifest. More commonly, a teenager and an adult are substantially the same things, but the teenager has latent potentialities yet to be manifest such as fully developed secondary sex traits, or the virtues of prudence and temperance.

Why all the technical jargon? Because we only say that we are happy when our lives or some portion of them are good. But goodness means that something is functioning in accord with a substantial form manifesting its potential. When we say that In N’ Out makes a good burger, what we are really saying is that we understand “burgerness” and declare that this burger does what a burger is supposed to do. We know that burgers are supposed to be comprised of a meat patty–here I will only interject to those of a vegetarian persuasion to remind that the word became flesh not veggie– between two buns. They may potentially include cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, etc. If I go to order a 3X3 with cheese and end up in the hospital with food poisoning, I would surely be justified in saying that it was not a good burger because it did not satisfy my desire to be somewhat nourished. If on the other hand, I ordered that same 3X3 and slammed it without so much as another rumble in my stomach till the next day, I should say that the goodness–the fact that the burger acted according to its nature and potentials–caused a feeling of elation or happiness in me. Happiness is the by-product of substantial forms in order with the world.

Good people are those who actively choose to excel in the virtues (potentials) which would lead to their perfection, even when it is not immediately gratifying. These virtues include prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, meekness, humility, chastity, charity, hope, and faith. Pope John Paul II was a good man because he actively fought to practice the virtues that make humans most excellent. Hugh Hefner…eh, not so much. Good people make us happy. We are most happy when we are good.

Before we misunderstand, allow me to explain what I am not saying. I am not saying that anytime someone feels happy, they are acting in accord with their substantial form. For if, as GK Chesterton says, a man can feel happy skinning a cat alive we should not think that the feeling of happiness determines rightness. I am saying that true happiness is a response to a real perfection of a substantial form. Someone rolling Molly may experience a state of euphoria but the temporary bliss is not real in that the happiness isn’t a response to any real excellence or perfection. In other words, part of what it means to be human is to respond in bliss to real and natural phenomena, like saying yes to a man on one knee in front of you. The euphoria of Molly is synthetic and artificial. It doesn’t prove to be a catalyst to human perfection by any stretch of the imagination.

A couple may be thrust into a state of bodily bliss as they engage in premarital sex. But we should consider the happiness in relation to the nature of their humanity and the nature of human sexuality. Sex is, whether we like it or not, ordered to two fundamental things–procreation and union. The bliss that the couple experiences at the big moment is biology’s way of keeping the species going. That same moment shoots our brains full of dopamine and bonds us to the object of our release. Nature does not care whether two 23-year-olds in a bar don’t intend to have children or love each other, the nature of human reproduction ain’t changin’ now.  They may part ways and be perfectly content with themselves. But our question remains. Is the happiness because of a real perfection of a substantial form? Did both of them really act in such a way as to respect the nature and excellence of human sexuality? Anyone with common sense knows that the answer is probably no. If they used any semblance of contraception, then the answer is even more apparent since they actively used something to frustrate the two ends of human sexuality. In this case, the happiness would not result from anything objective other than their pursuit of pleasure.

The problem, as the astute reader can probably already tell, is that in both scenarios, the happiness is being sought as the goal instead of as a by-product, to the detriment of real human experience and excellence. This, I am arguing is the reason why our culture and marriages are full of discontents. We live in a culture that views happiness as an end in itself. As I have tried to demonstrate, pursuing happiness as a goal ends in loss of human excellence because we often confuse the feeling of happiness with objective perfection.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with an engaged friend that went like this:

“Why are you marrying him?”

“He makes me happy. what do you mean?”

“But there has to be more than that.”

“What more could there possibly be to making a marriage work?”

“Do you think your marriage is actually going to work?”

“Of course I do!”

“But what if it doesn’t? Won’t that make you unhappy?”

“Well yeah”

“And if he doesn’t make you happy anymore, should you leave?”

“…well that won’t happen.”

To her, the end-all, be-all was her own happiness. It never occurred to her that she should have spent her dating time considering the “substantial form” of a husband and father as more than “forever male sex partner I like to be around”. She never thought to ask whether he has proven himself to be a man of virtue and self-sacrifice. For that matter, she never thought about what it meant to be a wife and mother, you know, the thing marriage is ordered to. For her, the feeling of happiness that he brought her reigned supreme. If Hollywood is any indication of current trends, I would venture to guess that her situation is not all that uncommon. There are a lot of people making “personal vows” at their weddings in lieu of vowing to not bail at the 1st, 7th, or 200th sign of trouble. One can only vow “In sickness/health, good times/bad, till death do us part” and keep it if you are actually sure you understand what it means to be a spouse and are confident that you have practiced the virtues you will need to compensate for your spouse’s inevitable buffoonery.  The secret that our culture seems to forget is that happiness consists in the daily perfection of the vows.

You don’t marry a woman because she makes you happy. You marry her because she has proven herself to be a woman of great love and devotion to Our Lord and Lady, a woman of honesty, charity, great compassion, and strength. When you have that, how could you not be happy? You don’t wake up in the morning and perform a task to please your spouse just because it makes you happy. You do it because your status as a spouse demands sacrificial love. The by-product of that act is an acute awareness of your concern which may, in turn, be reciprocated. Such reciprocity will evoke great happiness in both spouses.

In these cases, your happiness will be true and abiding because they come from a real consideration of the nature of marriage. If our culture could find a way to stop exalting happiness as the end-goal of human existence, we would immediately find that our marriages would last longer and actually be happier.

I think St. Thomas would be quite pleased with Pharell. Happiness, true happiness, does make us feel like a room without a roof because it comes from a true fulfillment of everything that makes us most human. Happiness really is the Truth. Turns out Pharell was influenced by a 12th-century Doctor of the Church and didn’t even know it.

In these moments let us beseech God to give us the desire to strive in virtue for our spouses and in preparation for the never-ending happiness of Heaven. Let us storm Heaven with our prayers and continue to give it The Ol’ Catholic Try.