The Gospel of Happiness: Author Q&A with Christopher Kaczor

Christopher Kaczor is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University and is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He holds a B.A. from Boston College and a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. He did post-doctoral work in Germany at the University of Cologne as a Federal Chancellor Fellow and returned as a Fulbright Scholar.

Professor Kaczor is the author of 11 books. His research on issues of ethics, philosophy and religion has also been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post and National Review. He has appeared on NPR, BBC, EWTN, ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, MSNBC, TEDx and The Today Show. 

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Professor Kaczor's newest book, “The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology,” is being published by Image Books on Sept. 8. On Aug. 24, I interviewed Professor Kaczor by email about his new book.

Why did you write this book?

Originally, I did not set out to try a book, but rather to become happier. In my personal quest for greater happiness, I discovered a new field of psychology, called positive psychology. For decades, psychology focused on alleviating depression, anxiety and sadness. Positive psychology by contrast investigates optimism, resilience, signature strengths and engagement with life. I found a remarkable convergence in the insights about happiness offered by the ancient philosophers like Aristotle, medieval theologians like Augustine and positive psychologists like Martin Seligman. I was amazed by the empirical confirmation offered by contemporary positive psychologists of the value of Christian practices such as forgiving those who wrong us, serving those in need, remembering our blessings and drawing on hope as a source of optimism in difficult times. Jesus, of course, recommended these practices, but here I was finding secular (often atheist) psychologists pointing to the same practices as conducive to happiness. Moreover, I discovered that contemporary psychology offers practical ways of reaching forgiveness, strengthening willpower and deepening gratitude. 

You teach philosophy at Loyola Marymount University. What influences did your classroom experience and the Ignatian tradition have on this book?

Positive psychology provides an empirical justification of the wisdom of many of St. Ignatius’s recommendations. For example, the focus on gratitude in the Examen of the Spiritual Exercises is akin to the “Three Good Things” exercise recommended by Martin Seligman. Ignatius suggested that we make decisions from a spirit of consolation rather than desolation. The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson points to the same conclusion in her work on the importance of positive emotions in good decision-making. Ignatius and contemporary psychologist Walter Mischel both recommend keeping track of failures in order to grow and improve. The founder of the Jesuits and later Kelly McGonagle both noticed the positive effect of communicating with a trusted person about temptations. Both also talk about the critical importance of reflection and self-awareness in healthy living. In writing The Gospel of Happiness, I found that the recent findings of positive psychology provide a powerful empirical reinforcement of these teachings of St. Ignatius.

Who is your audience?

My audience is Christians of all kinds, but I hope Catholics in particular profit from the book. I focus teachings and practices common to all Christians, but also at times address topics of particular interest to Catholics (such as the teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola). I hope that Christians can find in The Gospel of Happiness new motives for practicing the teachings of Jesus. I do also hope that some non-Christians read the book and find that Christian practice—far from deadening enjoyment of life as some have said—actually enhances human well being. 

What do you mean by “the gospel of happiness” in your title?

Jesus came so that we might have life and have it in its fullness. In other words, the revelation of God in Christ is for our benefit and flourishing. The Gospel is good news, and good news for human beings is always connected to happiness. Happiness, of course, is defined in many ways, and I have explored the understanding of happiness proposed by Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology. He defines happiness by the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, relationships, meaning understood as making a contribution to others and achievement of goals. I suggest that the Christian way of life enhances positive emotion, engagement with life, relationships with others, meaning and achievement. Indeed, Christian belief and practice transcends the happiness offered by positive psychology. That is good news indeed.

How will readers “rediscover their faith through spiritual practice” in your book?

Positive psychology recommends various practices in order to increase happiness. I think in a similar way Jesus recommends a way of life constituted by practices such as forgiving others, expressing gratitude to God and serving those in need. Just as we can rediscover God through serving those in need, so too we can rediscover faith by seeing the connection of practices of faith to our well being. When we not only know what Jesus taught, but also can see why Jesus taught it, we can gain a new appreciation of his wisdom. When these teaching are put in practice, our own experience of greater joy can confirm his wisdom. The ways of Jesus ultimately are the ways to deeper happiness and fulfillment.

What does the phrase “positive psychology” in your subtitle mean?

Positive psychology began in 1998 when the president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, challenged psychologists to look at the full range of human experience. Of course it is important to examine and try to alleviate depression, anxiety, hopelessness and sadness. The “negative” in life is certainly part of life, but it is not the whole of life. Seligman challenged psychologists to investigate more fully the positive in life. Why do some people have post-traumatic growth? How can we increase joy and optimism? What are the signature strengths of human beings? Seligman suggested that psychology should try to more fully understand and enhance happiness, joy, flow in life and human relationships. Since it began, positive psychology has flourished and grown prompting books, conferences and even master’s programs dedicated to it.

What were some highlights and challenges for you in writing this book?

I enjoyed writing this book, all three times. Well, I didn’t exactly write it three times, but there were three extensive revisions of the work. The first time I wrote it, the book contained lots of painful, personal revelations that the Image editor, the wonderful Gary Jansen at Penguin Random House, thought didn’t really work well. My suffering was not particularly radical or sensational. If I had spent 15 years in the Soviet Gulag, readers would doubtless find it interesting, but I have thus far in life been spared catastrophic suffering. The second draft was too impersonal, too academic. So I hope the third version is just right. I am deeply indebted to Gary’s keen editing for vastly improving The Gospel of Happiness.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

I hope readers find the book practically helpful. For example, many people would like to have greater willpower. I know in my life, I can be my own worst enemy, sabotaging my own happiness. We probably can all identify with Oscar Wilde, who said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” Educated Christians seldom do the wrong thing because they had no idea it was wrong, or because they couldn’t care less about doing wrong. The most common cause of lack of love of God, neighbor and self is weakness of will. In recent years, psychologists such as Roy Baumeister and Kelly McGonagle have focused on the causes and remedies for weakness of will. The last chapter talks about ways of strengthening willpower so that we can better love God and love neighbor.

How does the Catholic faith influence your life and work?

Wow. That’s a big question. As a philosophy professor, I love and seek wisdom. As a Catholic, I believe that God is the ultimate source of wisdom and truth. So, my work is animated by the conviction that faith and reason are ultimately in harmony because whatever truth we find ultimately comes from God who is the source of both revelation and reason. I feel incredibly grateful to be a Catholic. I feel incredibly grateful to be a professor of philosophy. 

Who have been your biggest role models in the Catholic faith?

I’d say my mother is my biggest role model. She first taught me to pray. She answered my questions as a child about matters of faith, and I still ask her advice. She has been a model of fidelity to God and to her vocation as a wife and a mother. Ever since she and my dad first got me from St. Anne’s Children’s Home in Spokane, my mother has really shown me something about God by loving me in something like the way God loves us all—unconditionally. 

In terms of role models for being a Catholic professor I was incredibly blessed to have Fr. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., and Peter Kreeft as my philosophy teachers while I was an undergraduate at Boston College. They are exemplary people—engaging in the classroom and joyful in the faith. They also reached out to me in a personal way by inviting me to lunch and to join a group of professors called the “St. Socrates Society.” I was the only undergraduate among them, and I felt incredibly honored and inspired to be in the group.

After Boston College, I was extremely fortunate to work with Ralph McInerny while I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. McInerny had generosity, wit, drive, joy, courtesy, toughness, a family life, a prayer life, loyalty and love. He directed 47 dissertations, produced 55 non-fiction books of philosophy and theology, as well as 95 novels, including the Father Dowling Murder Mysteries. I attempted to give some sense of how extraordinary he was in a book I edited called O Rare Ralph McInerny: Reflections and Stories about a Legendary Notre Dame Professor

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a book called Created Equal about the Declaration of Independence. We’ve all heard the famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Borrowing a phrase for John Courtney Murray, S.J., we can call these words of the Declaration the American Proposition. Did Jefferson and the Founding Fathers hold that only white, male, property-owners were created equal? Or did they in fact have a more inclusive view, that all human beings—black, white, Native, male and female—have fundamental rights? After clarifying the historical meaning of the American Proposition, Created Equal takes up a political-philosophical question. In 1776, the Founding Fathers held that these were “self-evident truths,” but can we still believe in the American Proposition today? I think we can. The book goes on to critique Hobbesian, Lockean, Utilitarian justifications of the American Proposition. Finally, I offer what I hope are sound arguments for the American Proposition.

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if that is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). I love this passage and try to apply it to everyone with whom I’m in contact. It is an act of love to seek out, recognize and affirm the good given by God to be found in each person. 

What is your impression of Pope Francis?

There is a picture of Pope Francis embracing a severely deformed man who has grotesque growths, bulges and sores all over his face. When I first saw this picture, I could hardly look at the deformed man, and here’s the pope not just looking at the man but embracing him. Pope Francis has inspired me to be more mindful of the poor and vulnerable in our society. He has challenged me to reach out to those in need in practical ways to make their lives better. I’m grateful for him for underscoring this aspect of the Catholic faith and for inspiring me to make it more fully part of my life.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope to become a better husband, father, friend and professor. I hope to see my children grow into generous people who love God and neighbor and embrace a noble vocation such as marriage or religious life. I hope to have lovely grandchildren I see regularly. I hope the church flourishes. I hope our country improves not just economically but also spiritually. Most of all, I hope to enjoy heaven with all my family and friends.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
2 years 2 months ago
This is one of the best Q & A interviews to date. Professor Kaczor is an excellent example of someone who has integrated his spirituality into all facets of his daily life. I'm sure his students appreciate both his dedication as a teacher and his example as a Christian. In addition, his book "The Ethics of Abortion" should be required reading for every student at a Catholic university.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 2 months ago
Sounds more like Dwayne Dyer and Norman Vincent Peale more than freeing the captives. Except for the reference to Francis there seems to be a lot of pie in the sky more similar to Est and Esalen. His favorite quote is not a Paul of Tarsus original as it is taken from the literature of those times. While hope is ever important, suffering in the trenches with our sister Syrians, Mexicans, etc. is more consonant with the Crucified Jesus.
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years 2 months ago

Thanks everyone for reading. This new book sounds like it might generate some discussion. I find the author's synthesis of philosophy, spirituality, and positive psychology to be intriguing.

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