What does happiness mean to society? – Asbury University
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What does happiness mean to society?

Dr. Jennifer Frey opens discussion on where society has shifted ideals of happiness

October 17, 2022

This week, Asbury welcomed Dr. Jennifer Frey, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and host and creator of philosophy, literature, and theology podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, as a part of the Honors Program fall colloquial series.

Her talk entitled “Classical and Contemporary Views on Happiness” discussed how current society cultivates and responds to the idea of happiness.

Growing up an atheist, Frey studied the Great Thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas with no religious influences, causing her to delve deeper into different philosophical standpoints. When approaching absolutes such as morality and ethical responses, Frey was unaware of staples of Christianity such as divine commands that influence the way that certain individuals approach morality.

Through her studies involving the history of philosophy, she found that the question of the ethical dilemma of murder is directly connected with the question of human flourishing, or human happiness.

“There are some things that humans can never do because they are incompatible with human happiness,” said Frey.

In other words, decisions such as murder will never allow a person to attain happiness. Morality choices lead individuals closer to the cultivation of contentment.

The direct tie between morality and happiness is becoming more construed as society carries on.

In the classical tradition, happiness was considered the highest good and what one would aspire towards in society, whereas now, the cultural climate acknowledges that there are copious aspects that prevail over existential contentment. Morality, an aspect considered to be directly attached to one’s achievement of happiness, is now equated to being “more important” in some cases.

“If being moral makes you really sad and miserable, there is something demonstrably wrong with you.”

This complete separation between ethics and happiness causes society to go to “quick fixes” of happiness such as medication prescriptions or the basing on life circumstances, rather than tackling the root of unhappiness.

“We have this picture of mental health that equates to if you are chemically balanced,” said Frey. “There are material effects, but it can’t be reduced to the material without losing the main essence of it.”

According to Frey, the prevailing aspect of human flourishing over time in today’s culture is a balance in a positive psychological state over the negative. It’s no longer about reaching one’s potential; happiness has been subjected to if one “feels good.”

“We need to recover a more robust moral psychology,” she said. “Where you look at the human person as a moral agent, look at negative human emotions with the larger signifying contacts, and identify the actual sources of sadness.”

This reorientation, according to Frey, will rebuild the once removed pillars of human happiness and illuminate God’s perfectly designed plan of the joy in which He desires humanity to share.