The Relationship between Virtue and Happiness

by Kevin Vost

Virtue is actually essential for happiness because virtues give us the power to have control over ourselves, to seek the things that we know will truly make us happy. When we’re mired in vice and sin, we lose our freedom. We’re enslaved by our own lower capacities and passion, so virtue gives us that ability to seek the things that are truly good for us, the things that will truly make us happy.

So what kind of things can psychology do to help us become more virtuous and to conquer vice and sin?

One is understanding our general human nature. And in this we get, from psychology, there’s a lot we can get there, but we also get this through our Catholic theology, which has a full and total grasp of what it is to be a human being.

It starts in the pagan world, people like Aristotle had talked about, “Well, what is the nature of the human soul?” ‘Cause technically speaking, psychology is the study of the psyche, or the soul.

The Relationship between Virtue and Happiness: Start with the Soul

And living things have three general levels or categories of different powers.

And the first, they call the vegetative soul or the vegetative powers of the soul, things like growth, reproduction, nutrition. We see this in plant life, but we also have it ourselves.

The second layer, the sensitive soul, it’s called. The powers there are our five senses, also locomotion, the ability to move about. And you know, we see that animals have this power and so do we.

But there’s a third level, the level of the intellectual, irrational soul that allows us to think deeply, to think in terms of concepts, to make judgements and reason. And then, also, to control those lower passions, to control the various urges we get.

So, that highest level of the soul there is what’s uniquely human. And if we study the profound lessons of the philosophers and psychologists and even our own great Catholic theologians, we can get a better grasp on how to rein in those lower passions, bring them in line with reason, which will then bring them in line with virtue.

Virtue, Psychology, and Happiness

Because virtue really is often a matter of controlling those natural passions through our reason, bringing them in line so we seek what is really, truly, the best for us.

This general capacity, the intellectual soul, the powers of the intellectual soul, we’re the only creature on earth that has that.

Of all the various species, we’re the only one that God made in His image and likeness in that we have those capacities. We have intellect, we have will. We’re not just guided by our instincts. So, if we have an urge to go get something or eat something or smash something, we don’t just have to do that. We can call on our reason to reflect upon that, decide if that’s truly good or not.

So, one thing that psychology in general can do is to help us understand those capacities that God gave us to operating more than just at the instinctual, animal level.

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