Happiness: A Capital Asset?

Ask an accountant what a capital asset is and you will be told that it is an asset owned to generate a profit, but is not easily sold for cash in the normal course of business operations.  In business school, we learn that these are assets such as land, machinery, and buildings—the assets not generally liquidated until the worst case scenario.  When we think about the world of work, can we say the same thing about happiness?  Perhaps the answer depends on what you think happiness is.

What is happiness?

From philosophers to bartenders, we have all strived to answer the question at one point or another.  If Sigmund Freud and St. Thomas Aquinas were to share a beer, I think that they would both agree that everyone desires happiness.  But what happiness is, how it is achieved, and what it really means is all together another matter.  Truth be told, these two intoxicating philosophers slice the view of happiness into two divergent world views.

For Freud happiness is a feeling that comes from the satisfaction of needs which have been damned up to a high degree—you could say, like having a beer after a grueling day of hard yard work in the sun.  Or more precisely, as Freud would say– sexual tension relieved through an episodic satisfaction of the libido.  For Freud, happiness equals pleasure, and he calls this theory the Pleasure Principle.

Unfortunately for Freud, happiness does not last.  Freud posits that once an intense feeling of happiness occurs, it cannot be sustained.  This is because, if the intense feeling is sustained, it will ultimately lessen and dull and no longer truly be pleasure (happiness).  Freud reasons that our human constitution (the inability to sustain intense pleasure) limits our ability to be in possession of happiness.

Even if this constitutional limitation were not inherent in man, Freud argues that society in its desire for preservation, limits the true pursuit of happiness.

In contrast, Aquinas describes happiness in two ways:  subjective happiness and objective happiness.  Subjective happiness is a state and an operation.   As a state, it is the permanent possession of fulfillment.  As an operation, it is an act by which man possesses the object which makes him happy.

Here is where Aquinas has sharp distinction with Freud.  Aquinas argues that as an operation, man’s ultimate subjective happiness is an operation of the intellectual faculties, not of the senses.  This means that man’s subjective happiness is an act of the intellect (a faculty of the soul) and not of the will.  For Aquinas, this means that objective happiness is the reality which, when possessed, will make man subjectively happy by completely fulfilling and satisfying his entire nature.  This means that, although true happiness is comprehended by the soul, true happiness lies outside the soul (and certainly outside of the body).

For Aquinas, the operation of the intellect ranks above the delight of the will.  Therefore, Aquinas reasons that perfect happiness is when man beholds God in the beatific vision and rests and enjoys such in his will.  Aquinas concludes that this is true because no created good can give man perfect happiness.  Only the “essential, universal and boundless good” can bring man complete and unfading fulfillment—true happiness.  Because no created good is universal, essential and boundless. The only uncreated good is God—in whom is the source of true happiness.

How is Happiness Achieved?

Sadly, for Freud, in the constructs of society, happiness (the Pleasure Principle) is not practically attainable.  He surmises that there are a litany of worldly influences that more aptly move man to a state of suffering so that in the end man is ultimately more resigned to thinking himself happy to simply have escaped unhappiness or to have survived his suffering (Freud’s Reality Principle).  In the constructs of solitude, Freud sees hope for a type of “happiness of quietness.”  However, he is quick to realize that this is not the natural state of man.

For Aquinas, man’s natural powers can bring him happiness—but not true happiness.  Man’s good works are required to attain happiness and ultimately to attain Heaven.  However, it is only in Heaven that man can attain true happiness in the beatific vision.  Man’s good works in the world derive from the will choosing and exercising works of virtue.  Aquinas concludes that each meritorious work represents a step toward the Supreme Good, God:  true happiness.

What Does Happiness Really Mean?

For Freud, there is an inversion of the classical notion of happiness.  This is because the idea of happiness is to Freud at odds with what is good.  Freud attempts to declare that happiness is tantamount to discontent.  For Freud, to continually obtain pleasure (happiness), our aims become destructive because society cannot sustain unbridled, instinctual compulsion.  Tragically, for Freud, happiness is all wrapped up in satisfying the needs of the material self.

In contrast, for Aquinas, happiness is a journey, and true happiness is attained in reaching and relishing in the destination.  The foretaste of happiness is found in perfecting the virtues, and true happiness of man in Heaven is comprised of three things: (1) direct, intuitive knowledge of the divine essence—man’s last end; (2) present possession of God—the last end, and (3) delight of the will in the last end possessed.  This is the satisfaction of the needs of the soul.

Happiness and the World of Work.

In their work The Virtuous Organization:  The Value of Happiness in the Workplace, researchers Joanne Gavin and Richard Mason conclude that even though productivity has risen, “work in America has become more stressful and dissatisfying.”  These researchers examine two companies that have consciously sought to address this problem through a focus on authentic happiness.  The authentic happiness they study is not the acquiring of “money, honors, or sensual pleasure [but] the philosopher’s conception of happiness [as] a holistic state of well-being, of doing well and being well, and of taking authentic pride and self-esteem in one’s accomplishments.”  The researchers posit that in this state “people are happy and healthy and hence are able to sustain their contributions to productivity.”  The two case studies reviewed were of The Container Store and TDIndustries, each with focused, deliberate strategies to increase the happiness of its workers and other stakeholders.  The research has found that this strategy works.

This work is relatively new.  Economists have done much to study how work impacts happiness (job-satisfaction).  But studying how true happiness affects productivity causes us to reach into areas where economists, industrial psychologists and theologians converge.

Why We Work.

Man is wired for work (that is, to be productive). It is part of our mission and who we are as human beings. It is all laid out in the first few verses of the Book of Genesis. God is introduced to us as the omnipotent Creator who makes Man is in own image and invites him to work the soil and cultivate and care for the Earth. Man is given dominion over all living creatures, not as a tyrant – but as a caretaker and protector. Man did not create the goods of the Earth, they are God’s creation, and Man’s role is to respect and fulfill the responsibility of the stewardship of God’s material world. This work was designed to make us happy.

So Is Happiness a Capital Asset?

As a business people of faith, we know that our true happiness lies in a loving relationship with our Creator. This is our profit, and this is our reward. In this sense, happiness is our property, plant and equipment: a capital asset never to be liquidated. We take an accounting of this truth each day as we work through our journey in the material world.

[Feature image by Sai De Silva via Unsplash]