What originally got me thinking about the duty to be happy was reading Story of a Soul, the spiritual autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux.
I picked up this book by chance, without knowing anything about St. Therese, the “Little Flower.” That was two years ago, and I’ve already read it three times, plus every book I can find about St. Therese. (Why am I so preoccupied with St. Therese? No idea. Some depths are better left unplumbed.)
I can’t recommend Story of a Soul highly enough—it’s extraordinary. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read.
Some background: Therese was born in France in 1873. Her father had tried to become a monk, and her mother, a nun, but both were rejected. They married, and of their five children who survived childhood, all became nuns and one became a saint.
Therese tried to enter a Carmelite convent at age 15 (two of her sisters were already there), but the bishop wouldn’t permit it, because she was too young. She went to Pope Leo XIII to ask his permission, but the Pope stood by the bishop’s decision. Then abruptly the bishop changed his mind.
While Therese was in the convent, her “Mother” was her older sister Pauline, who ordered her to record her childhood memories. This became the basis for Story of a Soul. St. Therese died an agonizing death of tuberculosis at age 24 and was canonized in 1925.
Therese’s account is sometimes criticized for being sentimental and childish. It is, in a way, but that’s her whole point. She’s describing her “little way” to holiness—not with spectacular gestures, but everyday actions.
There are so many striking passages in Story of a Soul. In particular, I think often of Therese’s reflection that: “for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so.”
Therese recounts how hard she worked to be happy—not to be annoyed by a sister who made a maddening clicking noise or by those who interrupted her when she was trying to write. Also, not long before her death, she suffered a terrible crisis of faith.
Therese succeeded so well at seeming effortlessly happy and good, however, that when she died, one sister commented, “Virtuous she certainly is, but that is no feat when one has so happy, so uncomplicated a nature, no difficulties of character, and has not had to win virtue ‘like us’ by struggles and suffering.”
As Therese notes, people assume that when you appear happy, you feel happy—spontaneously and without struggle. But try acting happy. It’s very hard to do.
I’ve been trying to act happy about going to dinners that I don’t want to attend, doing “fun” things that I don’t find fun, enjoying food and movies and performances that I didn’t really like, because my happiness would help make someone else happy.
Now, why is this so hard? Turns out my instinct to criticize and carp is very strong, much stronger than I realized before I tried to stop criticizing and carping. But for the love of my family and friends, so loving toward me, I’m trying to appear happy and especially to be so.