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Paul WilkesFebruary 27, 2012
Called to Happinessby By Sidney CallahanOrbis. 208p $20

On the highway to happiness, Sidney Callahan may well be thankful she has an intersection called faith to duck into, where she can pause and catch her breath as the traffic roars by.

Summoned to serve on Emory University’s four-year interdisciplinary Pursuit of Happiness Project, Dr. Callahan, a psychologist by training, mother of six and Catholic by choice, bravely takes on the subject of some 43,000 Amazon.com listings and carefully weaves her way through a consideration of our national obsession: happiness.

Am I? Should I be? Can I be? How would I know if I am not? Most important, how do I get it?

In today’s so-called secular society (I personally do not believe it is), what we have is a struggle between the bright promises of positive psychology (like the little engine that could, we “think we can, think we can”...be happy) and the murkier quest of faith, which sees the pursuit of happiness for its own sake a puerile and ultimately unsatisfactory venture.

I was reading Dr. Callahan’s book on a recent flight, and when I stopped to change planes, I browsed through the newsstand offerings. Indeed, there were dozens of titles assuring happiness. As I paged through a few of them, I could see the harried traveler going through a list:

• Check e-mail

• Pick up laundry

• Organize dinner party

• Get happiness

Positive psychology, run out to its logical conclusion, devoid of a faith life, would enshrine Eat, Pray, Love as the three deities of a New Trinity. But Dr. Callahan carefully and with appropriate scholarly detachment (she is also a distinguished scholar at the Hastings Center, in company with her husband, Daniel Callahan) describes in detail the premises of positive psychology without ever, at least to this reader’s mind, completely giving herself over to it.

She states her position:

Clearly I am also endorsing a very optimistic view of the potential of theology, psychology and science to help human beings change their views about themselves.... I am also a convinced Christian believer, and so I argue that religious and spiritual wisdom can bring happiness or blessedness [I liked that usage] in this life as well as the next.... Yet in a secular age, religious good news and other positive signs of the time can easily be discounted.

While seeking to define and dissect happiness, a slippery subject under anyone’s knife, the author adroitly points to other ways to approach the subject. She quotes the simple approach of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker, who advocated the creation of a societal structure where it would naturally be “easy for people to be good,” with happiness naturally flowing from actions that would result from such an outlook.

She looks closer to home, to her own upbringing in a southern military and Calvinist family. “Fortunately, the outcome of generations of southern piety provided an unnoticed positive character... While not consciously stressed, the moral and religious virtues inculcated produced happiness.”

And Dr. Callahan looks to her own faith life: “Jesus Christ embodies the truth that God’s loving forgiveness and healing are offered to all: the foreigner, the tax collector, the leper and the lunatic, outcast women, mothers and children, and the exploited poor.... Christ’s disciples are told to extend God’s love and mercy to everyone, with no exceptions....”

She tells a lovely story of her Navy captain father visiting the young Callahans, with three young children, in a shabby slum apartment, under the influence of the Worker’s belief that the external requirements of the intentional life were few, the internal rewards great. “Sidney, Sidney,” he kept saying. “You can’t really be happy like this.”

“But, yes, in fact, I really was happy.... We were fighting the good fight for God and survival.... I felt like a warrior queen on crusade or at least an enthusiastic pilgrim in Jerusalem.”

Aha! That’s it! Seek not happiness directly, and it will be your reward, provided.... Of course, the “provided” is the problem. Will it be dogmatic adherence to religious beliefs? Sorry, no. Will it be poverty? No, as many of us who gallantly lived the Worker life only to slowly morph into middle class statistics would find out. The answer? Ready, so you need not wade through those 43,000 volumes?

Yes, human happiness is a reality that comes from God and can be successfully pursued here and now. Yes, individuals can become happy, and they and the world will be better for it. These core affirmations, much elaborated and argued for here, are such complicated issues that they will demand decades more research and work. Be prepared; many, many more books, studies, and research projects on all facets of happiness are on their way. We hear only the opening bars of the overture of a very long symphony consisting of many movements.

Alas, Dr. Callahan seems to perpetuate the field of happiness studies. Check your iPhone; it may be coming to a university department near you. But in my heart I have a sense that she could find no other way to end this book, which, if my instincts are correct, was no fun to write. After all, three of the chapter headings ended up as questions.

A few of her closing words come closer to saying what has been danced around for 154 pages: “Will it come to pass in the near future that God’s authorship of the drama of human happiness will receive its rightful thanks and praise? I devoutly hope so.”

Not so complicated, after all.

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