Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis and the Pursuit of Happiness

One of my all-time favorite books is Dr. Armand Nicholi’s, The Question of God. Nicholi is a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. In the book he contrasts the worldview of Sigmund Freud, an atheist and C.S. Lewis, a Christian.

There is a chapter comparing and contrasting their views on happiness. They clearly represented polar opposite views on this issue. Freud believed in the pleasure principle, and that happiness is rooted in pleasure. Lewis believed virtue and character, rooted in the love of God, was the key to happiness.

Many scholars today believe that our culture looks to pleasure as the source of happiness because we are living under the spell cast by Freud, as he clearly was the most influential psychiatrist of the 20th century. Interestingly, Freud not only made a direct correlation between happiness and pleasure, but also believed that people live in psychological dysfunction and are unhappy because social conventions limit our doing what we really find pleasure in. In essence, Freud believed that people are not happy because they are not free to pursue outwardly what they desire to do inwardly. He also contended these moral social conventions caused people to feel guilty when they are violated, which leads to further unhappiness. However with the passage of time and after sober reflection, Freud realized the pleasure principle created a real dilemma. Nicholi says:

He wondered what would happen if men were to take any woman they chose. Asking the question made him draw back, recognizing that the individual’s desires had to be balanced with society’s interest.

Over time, Freud recognized that physical pleasure was temporary and fleeting, and therefore unhappiness was unavoidable. His view of life was dark, ominous and full of despair. In a letter to his fiancé he admitted over a fourteen month period that he had experienced only three or four days of happiness. Nicholi says that Freud constantly experienced “feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, a negative interpretation of life with frequent thoughts of death, and a pessimistic view of the future.” The only thing he found that consistently lifted his spirits was a new drug called cocaine. At the end of his life he asked this question; “What good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?”

For the first thirty-one years of his life, C.S. Lewis was also an atheist and Nicholi says that during those years, Lewis shared Freud’s despair. After becoming a Christian, he openly shared that his pessimism and gloom were clearly a result of his godless worldview. He had concluded that the universe was a “menacing and unfriendly place.” He saw no hope in the future.

However, everything changed when he became a Christian. His somber view of life was transformed into joy and a real sense of freedom. He said that once he had become a Christian he “began to know what life really is and what would have been lost by missing it.”

In his book Nicholi shares Lewis’ ideas about true happiness:

Lewis asserts that the primary purpose of our lives – the reason for our existence on this planet – is to establish a relationship with the Person who placed us here. Until that relationship is established, all of our attempts to attain happiness – our quest for recognition, for money, for power, for the perfect marriage or the ideal friendship, for all that we spend our lives seeking – will always fall short, will never quite satisfy the longing, fill the void, quell the restlessness, or make us happy. Lewis explains that “God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on . . . God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

After studying the lives of Freud and Lewis, Nicholi concludes that a person’s spiritual worldview has a profound impact on one’s capacity to experience happiness.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


Add grace and understanding to your day with words from Richard E. Simmons III in your inbox. Sign-up for weekly email with the latest blog post, podcast, and quote.

Fill out the form to receive wisdom in your inbox from Richard E. Simmons III.