Can We Have a Happy New Year?

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The beginning of a new year gives us a symbolic opportunity to mark the passing of the old and to look ahead. But the renewal of one’s soul and the growth of one’s character do not result from a mere calendar change…

By Robert Higgason, The Imaginative Conservative, Jan. 2018

Robert HiggasonHappy New Year! It’s a ubiquitous wish and a proper one. We extend this wish to all our friends and even to strangers. The greeting is positive and optimistic, suggesting that whatever the past year has been, the year that is just starting offers new beginnings and new opportunities.

The question I pose here is whether that wishful greeting can be fulfilled: Can we have a happy new year? If this were a rhetorical question, one might infer that I think things are so bad that we can’t really expect improvement and might as well give up or look for superficial distractions from our miserable lives of quiet desperation.[1] But the question is not rhetorical; it is straightforward. If we hope to answer this question honestly, we can improve our attempt to do so by reflecting on the meaning of happiness and asking ourselves what the beginning of a new year has to do with it.

What is happiness?

We can’t really say whether we can or cannot be happy unless we have some idea of what that means. We might think we know what happiness is, but our attempts to define it are often inadequate. Once we clarify the concept, we can start figuring out how to achieve it.

When we study philosophy, we explore the idea of happiness within the field of ethics. The connection between happiness and ethics or morality may no longer be obvious, since the ancient theory that presented them as united was shoved to a back shelf a few centuries ago with the Enlightenment and the rise of Utilitarianism.[2] Many now assume that if there is any connection between ethics and happiness, it is indirect, such as “Maybe I’ll be happier if I treat people better because they’ll treat me better in return, and that will make me happy.” But happiness is often considered as a completely separate issue, so that it is easy to imagine an immoral person being happy.[3] If an immoral person can, in fact, be happy, then why bother to be moral?[4] We all seek happiness, sure, but we may or may not decide to be moral. According to that view, morality is unrelated to our search for happiness and is, at best, a secondary concern.[5]

About 2,350 years ago, in the fourth century B.C., Aristotle left us notes from his ethics lectures, entitled Nicomachean Ethics, in which he placed primary emphasis on happiness. He taught that every action a man takes is aimed, either directly or indirectly, at bringing about happiness.[6] For Aristotle, the purpose in studying ethics, and politics as well, was to learn how to achieve the highest human good: happiness. But to understand Aristotle’s ethics we must understand the word he used that is frequently translated as happiness. The Greek word is εύδαιμονία, transliterated into English as eudaimonia. We are better off trying to grasp shades of meaning in eudaimonia rather than using the familiar word happiness, given that the latter is coated with centuries of cultural accretions viewed through every individual’s lens of personal preferences.

Aristotle’s concept is better expressed when eudaimonia is translated into other English words such as human flourishing. If we think of what it means to flourish as a human, our focus shifts toward thinking about what it means to be a human and to do it well—i.e., to be a good human. And this presupposes that there is some way that we were created to be; otherwise, there would be no way to distinguish a human who was flourishing from one who was not. We first need to understand what we were created to be—our nature, our goal, or our telos, to use another Aristotelian term—and then figure out how to get from what we presently are (individually and collectively) to what we were meant to be.[7] When we get there, we are flourishing as humans. We are happy in the sense of Aristotle’s eudaimonia.


The way that we get from where we are at any given moment to an eventual point of human flourishing is by living ethically, by which Aristotle meant that we are to develop and embody the virtues and avoid the vices. Two more concepts have now entered the mix, and they deserve prolonged study. Virtues are those qualities that make anything (including a human) more suitable for its intended purpose. Virtues represent the mean between the extremes in a variety of human proclivities, while vices are the extremes of deficiency or excess in those proclivities. Aristotle provided a list of virtues that, if learned, exercised, and embodied, would help a man grow over time into what a man should be.[8] The only persons who could flourish, or achieve eudaimonia, were those who were good at being what a human was meant to be. To put it another way, only a moral person could be happy, which is not widely believed today.

About 1,650 years after Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century wrote his Summa Theologiae and set Aristotle’s virtue ethics within Christian theology, providing the ultimate grounding that had been missing from Aristotle’s teleological morality.[9] God as known through Jesus Christ is the creator who designed man and revealed his purpose for man. The telos was man the way that God meant for him to be, which would be realized in the Kingdom of God both now and later.[10] Outside of God’s Kingdom (God’s reign in our lives), we can never be what he means for us to be. We cannot flourish, we cannot be happy.[11]

How are we meant to live?

If St. Thomas is right, our being happy does depend upon being moral. Just what does that mean? We can find no better guidance than the words of Christ himself, accompanied by the writings of his early followers. Christ tells us what makes a person happy, although the most commonly used word is blessed. He tells us that we will be blessed, or happy, if we are poor in spirit, if we mourn, if we are meek, if we hunger and thirst for righteousness, if we are merciful, if we are pure in heart, if we are peacemakers, if we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and if we are reviled for his sake (Matthew 5:3-11). That doesn’t sound like any idea of happiness that we hear about today. But it helps us understand what God has created us to be, and it provides guidance on how we should live. The Apostle Paul tells us that we should be patient, kind, humble, not greedy, and not pleased to see the pain of others (I Corinthians 13:4-6). He also tells us to set our minds and hearts on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). If we think of these words of Christ and of Paul as expressing Christian virtues, then following them will lead us to happiness in the sense of flourishing or being what God created us to be.

God has shown us what he intends humanity to be, how he intends us to live, and what will fulfill us and make us truly happy. This includes putting limits on what behavior is acceptable and even on our conception of ourselves. We can see this starting with the way that God dealt with Adam and Eve.[12]Their sin separated them from God and the paradise that he had made for them. After man showed that he needed specific guidance, God revealed to Moses a list of things we should do and things we should not do. There is a reason that the First Commandment is to put God before everything else (Exodus 20:2-3). When we do that, it helps us to understand and comply with the rest of the commandments: do not worship idols; do not misuse the name of God; keep the Sabbath day holy; honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not give false testimony against your neighbor; do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:4-17). The Ten Commandments give us insight into man’s dual nature—the created human nature as God intended man to be, and man’s fallen human nature the way man has tried to make himself.

When a lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest in all the law, he answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:36-38)(NIV). Jesus went further and gave the lawyer more than he had asked: “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:39-40)(NIV).[13] These two commandments—loving God first and with everything we have, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves—tell us what God expects from us and what will lead us to eternal life (Luke 10:25-37).

What will we make of 2018?

We are at the beginning of a new year, 2018. We should ask ourselves whatever became of the prefix A.D., for Anno Domini meaning In the Year of Our Lord, which for many centuries introduced the number of each year in the predominantly Christian Western world. In ancient Mediterranean civilizations, it was common to number years from the beginning of the Olympic Games, from the beginning of a king’s reign, from the founding of Rome, from the conquest of Rome, or from some other major event that was recognized across national and cultural boundaries.[14] Christ’s followers recognized him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords with all authority in heaven and on earth (Revelation 17:14; 19:16; Matthew 28:18). Since he was more important than any other person, and his birth, life, death, and resurrection were more important than any other event in history, it followed that there could be no better basis for numbering our years. Eventually, the calendar was made to reflect this. It doesn’t matter that the calculated Calendar Year One might be about four to six years off from the actual year of Jesus’s birth. What matters is that our traditional Western calendar, counting from what was believed to be the year of Jesus’s birth, reflects a recognition that Jesus Christ was, and is, the central figure in all of history.

As society has become more secularized and public reminders of Christianity have become marginalized, we should make a conscious effort to think of 2018 as the Year of Our Lord. It is his year whether we recognize it or not, and this is true of every year. But if we do acknowledge Christ’s place in history and in our own lives, then we will find ourselves with a new ability to focus on the purpose that God has given us, and the rest of life will begin to move into its proper perspective. This is true newness, not just of the new calendar year but of the new heart of man: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17)(ESV).

The beginning of a new year gives us a symbolic opportunity to mark the passing of the old and to look ahead. But the renewal of one’s soul and the growth of one’s character do not result from a mere calendar change. They require acknowledgment and disavowal of our waywardness, followed by a return to God, accepting his grace in Christ. It requires each of us to make a decision about how to live.

This year, starting today, we can decide to do something new. Whether we’ve ever done it before or not, we can set ourselves to becoming what God intended us to be. If we follow the teachings of Christ, if we embody the character qualities, the virtues, that he laid out for us, and if we make the Kingdom of God our primary goal, our telos, then with the aid of the Holy Spirit we will move toward fulfilling the nature that God created in us. We will flourish. We will be happy. Because we will have learned that, contrary to Aristotle’s view, happiness itself is not the goal but is a side effect of the goal that God set for each of us.

This essay was originally published in Thinking about Christianity (2014) and is republished with gracious permission from the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] See Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1906, pp. 8-9) (“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”)

[2] See Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 2007, pp. 36-78); John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863).

[3] This point is the subject of debate between Steven M. Cahn, “The Happy Immoralist” and Jeffrie G. Murphy, “The Unhappy Immoralist,” both in Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.35 (2004), reprinted in Steven M. Cahn, Ed., Exploring Ethics: An Introductory Anthology (2d ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press 2011). Cahn says that an immoral man can be happy while Murphy says that morality is integral to happiness. Their opposing conclusions appear to rest on different definitions of happiness.

[4] Socrates and Glaucon explore this question in Plato’s Republic, revisiting the legend of the Ring of Gyges.

[5] Nietzsche takes an extreme position that morality as traditionally understood in Western Civilization, especially in its Christian forms, directly undermines happiness. See generally Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886); On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (1887); and Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888).

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I, X.

[7] See MacIntyre’s discussion of this at pp. 51-61.

[8] Aristotle’s list of virtues included courage, temperance, liberality, munificence, right ambition, wittiness and friendliness, and several others. Each virtue had associated with it a pair of vices, which were to be avoided. The vices associated with courage, for example, were cowardice (representing deficiency) and foolhardiness (representing excess). See especially Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapters 7 & 8; Book III.

[9] St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 2, Article 8.

[10] See, e.g., Matthew 4:17 (“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”)(NIV); Matthew 12:28 (“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you”)(NIV); Mark 1:15 (“‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”) (NIV); Matthew 5:20 (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”)(NIV). For an extensive discussion of Jesus’s teachings on the Kingdom of God, see Mark A. Stelter, The Gospel According to Christ: The Message of Jesus and How We Missed It (Wipf and Stock, Eugene 2011).

[11] As a result of placing the virtues in a Christian context, St. Thomas’s list of virtues differed from Aristotle’s and included Four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude, which are revealed in nature and are binding on everyone, and Three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which require the aid of God and are necessary for happiness. Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part.

[12] This holds regardless of whether they were two historical individuals or literary symbols of earliest humanity.

[13] Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy 6:5 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”)(NIV) and Leviticus 19:18 (“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”)(NIV).

[14] See, e.g., Nehemiah 2:1 (“in the twentieth year of Artexerxes…”)(NIV); Jeremiah 32:1 (“in the tenth year of Zedekiah, king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar.”)(NIV); Luke 3:1 (“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…”)(NIV).