Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that no one deliberately chooses to be unhappy. In fact, he suggested that everyone wishes to be happy and spends much of life searching for this happiness.

During the start of each new year we decide what is going to make us happier, at least during the upcoming year. For some, it’s the absence of something causing unhappiness. I have a client with terminal cancer who whispered this, “I now know that I’m capable of happiness; it’s how I’d feel if this disease were to disappear.”

For others, it’s the fulfillment of a goal. For my youngest son, his most recent happiness was the scent of mahogany and music, in the form of a Gibson Les Paul guitar. Yet others are seduced by a mere promise, as one client who swears she’ll be happy forever if she were only to meet her mate and start a family.

For the most part, however, happiness is elusive, if not downright mercurial. Today I might be satisfied with the spark of sun off a child’s smile. Tomorrow that smile might cost me $4,000 in orthodontist fees and joy would be best packaged in one hundred dollar bills. I’d like to propose that this year, at least a few of us – at least me – negotiate happiness a different way, via a brand new reset button imprinted with this phrase: “Being Good.”

This idea was gestated in Orlando, where a girlfriend and myself spent a vacation, wandering the theme parks like children. We went on the Snow White ride at Magic Kingdom. We hennaed our hands in Epcot’s Morocco and stuffed every one of our numerous souvenir Mickey Mouse popcorn containers into our newly purchased extra suitcases. One might think there’s something rather strange about two middle-aged women minus children, strollers, grandparents, or any of the other generic qualifications for walking Wonderland, but really. Where else does “normal behavior” include eighty-year olds brandishing cutlasses, entire families decked out in alien being’s hats playing Waste Management, and mature men waving at a life-size mouse while sing-songing, “Say hi to Mickey!” to offspring dressed as anything from chipmunks to princesses? This over-indulgence of creativity and mania seems hardly the hotbed for a discussion about being good.

One day, however, we came upon a wishing well. Collected money would be donated to a children’s fund. I pitched a penny and wished for all my dreams to come true. My friend Cathy threw in a penny and hoped that the dreams for children everywhere would come true.

My friend Cathy was being good.

I was humbled, but also thrown into a deep, internal discourse about the nature of being good. It might not be bad for me to self-centeredly focus on my own desires, but neither was it entirely good. As I dissected the issue, I stumbled across a question that forced me to my mental knees:

Is it even okay to be good?

I went to Sunday School and know the right answer; I’m sure we’ve all endured and sometimes prospered by the homilies of a religious institution. Of course it’s okay to be good, in fact, it’s good to be good! The truth is, however, that we’ve all had experiences where it wasn’t okay to be good. Perhaps we were good anyway, but the consequences aren’t always fun. It’s as important to acknowledge the potential downside of goodness, as it is to recognize its upside. Simply choosing goodness without an awareness of its cost is to possibly open the door to its opposite.

History is lined with blood-soaked rivers, the outcome of “goodness.” Genocide has touched every continent: the Anabaptists by the Baptists in the Netherlands, the Jews by the Nazis in Europe and the Templars in the Holy Land; the Chinese by the Japanese; Native North Americans by the Caucasian Americans; the killings of each other by the Mayans, Toltec, and Aztec; Hari Krishnas by the Russians; women healers, aboriginals, and Druids by the Catholic Church; Christians by Muslims and Muslims by Christians and tribes everywhere by neighboring tribes.

Hindsight makes us wonder at why any society would ever permit the indecent, much less invite it. Looking backward, it’s easy to spy the clues and cues to the arising evil, to argue the inaccuracies behind the rationale. The fact is that both persecutors and victims believed in their own goodness and that no amount of coaching from the “Now” to “Then” would change the point of view of either side. Yes, in most cases there are better “goods” or less worse “bads.”

The main point, however, is that for the “good guys,” the religious, belief-oriented, New Order, innocent, martyred, kind, over-intelligent, gifted, or “different,” being good wasn’t good enough to save their lives. The proposed “goodness” of the others, saw different as bad, and gruesomely eliminated those different beings.

Tribal mentality suggests that different is bad, a threat to one’s own status, values, traditions, or security. Humans traditionally eradicate or at least resist that which causes fear, but only if we have enough power to do so. A two-year-old child can’t offer much resistance when a wave of soldiers are raping his mother. All too often, “good” is a matter of who wins or is in the position to win.

One of the main reasons for the spread of good (that may or may not be) is God. We all know what’s been done in the name of God, who by now, I would assume, has applied for new nomenclature. My own son, Gabriel, saw through this when his father, a pastor, said he should pray for his third grade team to win a football game.

Aren’t the kids on the other team praying to win, too?” He asked. “How is God going to pick?

Personally, I’ve decided if the reason for being good is to “please God,” I’d better rethink my decision. If God is God – all-inclusive and loving, then God doesn’t require something from me in order to become a better God. I figure He/She’d better be able to accomplish goodness on His/Her own. Now if God thinks I’d better crack the whip to shape myself up, that’s a different colored horse altogether.

Even then, I’m dreadfully aware of the cost of goodness. I might defend my family from an intruder and save lives; in the course of doing so, however, I could murder the marauder. Sometimes we can’t get to “good” without causing a “bad.” And sometimes, as in the case of countless individuals, causes, and societies, being good is more than frightening because of the bad it’s met with, as in the case of some of the examples listed above, such as women healers. How often do we NOT do good because we’re punished for it? We think the act of kindness will lead to a certain form of happiness, but we get the opposite.

It doesn’t make sense, but goodness is often met with gossip, sabotage, and sometimes, murder. One of my clients is a “whistle blower.” She now sits in a cubical in a large corporation valiantly attempting to output more work than any other employee. That’s her reward for saving the company millions of dollars and its reputation. She’s applied for more than 60 intra-company jobs to escape that particular department, to no avail. She is considered a “trouble-maker.”

How many Marxist protesters were imprisoned or killed by the Soviet Union? How many African Americans, when enslaved, were tortured for acts of kindness as insignificant as retrieving a fallen child? How long was Nelson Mandela silenced in prison for his ethics?

Sometimes the punishment for good isn’t as severe as an imprisonment. We “small people” often wear wounds raw from minor acts of kindness. I once gave a friend my extra tennis shoes; her parents were poor and she needed them for gym class. I was railed on for days. “Do you know the sacrifice it took to make enough money to buy those shoes?” When older, I attended a Christian College. (Think Norwegian Lutheran White Wonder bread.) An African American football player sat at our table. Several of my tablemates began telling “Nigger jokes.” I was so incensed that I dumped my food on the table and orated my own Declaration of Independence. Almost every Caucasian ostracized me for weeks.

My friend Cathy was right to wish for happiness for others. I know her. She’ll strive to make a difference. What she can provide, someone else needs. What we lack, others have. Imagine in the year ahead, enough of us were to actually employ our human spirit – our true spirit? I do believe that the dictates of goodness are already present within each of us within the heart of each of us, laid down at the beginning of time. I know that my conscience has always known what is right, even if I’ve ignored it.

For myself, I’m resolving to examine myself even more consciously; that which we don’t address consciously often overshadows our conscience. Fear does that. It convinces us that it’s not okay to be good: that good won’t count, won’t work, or will be punished. Worse, it wraps itself around our thoughts and tells us that we’re not even good enough to be good. The truth is, however, that I’ve never been so unconscious that I’ve not recognized my own failure to do what is right. And so perhaps this year, I’ll seek to more consciously and conscientiously join hands with others and help create a planet where good is simple. Good is “what is.”

Certainly I’m hoping that certain activities will be “good enough” to keep. The eating of chocolate. The employment of pizza delivery people. Maybe the praying to God not for God’s sake, but for the power and strength to aid our sisters and brothers. Maybe there really can be a day when it’s okay to be good.

The Four Levels of Happiness

Reverend Robert Spitzer, S.J. (Based on Aristotle)

  1. Laetus : Happiness is a thing.

  2. Felix : Happiness is comparative advantage.

  3. Beatitudo : Happiness comes from doing good.

  4. Sublime Beatitudo : Happiness is a fullness resulting from reaching for more than we can do only on our own.