Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Which Happiness?

There is perhaps no more quintessentially modern field than that of "happiness research." If you're unfamiliar, it fuses ideas from sociology, psychology, and economics in an attempt to answer this seemingly simple question: what actually makes someone happy? While there is much of interest in the findings of such studies, they also fall prey to a more basic question: what is happiness, anyway? This seems like it should be obvious, but the answer is harder than you might think.

One of the basic fault lines in the debate over happiness boils down to what we should measure. One approach to happiness research is to focus on the present, to ask "how happy are you today?" The hope is that those answers, aggregated over thousands of responses, will show what choices and what sorts of people are happiest. Another approach, though, avoids such immediate questions and instead asks "how satisfied are you with your life up to this point?" In that case, happiness is not about how I view the moment but how I view life as a whole.

This isn't an inconsequential disagreement. Certain factors look very different depending on which of those measures you choose. Take having children. In a surprise to zero parents of young kids, asking about the present moment makes children one of the worst things you can do for your happiness. You feel tired and harried and a little lost. However, if you instead try to measure life satisfaction, the numbers shift dramatically. By that standard, children are instead one of the best things you can do in a quest for fulfillment and joy.

All of which makes intuitive sense, but I don't point it out as a simple curiosity. Instead, I think our lack of reflection on that divide in defining happiness deeply affects how we view our lives.


I regularly hear people tell me that they should be able to do whatever they want to be happy. That God wants them to be happy. What I want to tell them is always "Yes, but also no. He does and He doesn't." That contradiction stems from the fact that they aren't distinguishing what sort of "happy" they have in mind. Happiness in our world, just like in happiness research, can mean either comfort-happiness or fulfillment-happiness.

Comfort-happiness is the truck of much modern consumerism. It is the happiness of being unworried and distracted. Of endlessly scrolling through Facebook or browsing Youtube. Of sitting on a beach with no greater responsibility than to wave over a waiter to bring your Mai Tai. Fulfillment-happiness, on the other hand, is the joy of seeking accomplishment and significance. Of doing things that matter, investing in relationships that grow, and working to better oneself and the world.

Of course, the two can co-exist. They should co-exist in a healthy life; as a Christian, Scripture extols the virtues both of work and of rest. The goodness of a productive Monday morning and a lazy Sunday afternoon. However, the two can also destroy one another, especially if we don't distinguish which belongs where. Imagine the person who thinks they should enjoy their work (which is good) but seeks that enjoyment in terms of comfort-happiness. They do as little as possible, surf the web and play Candy Crush all day. That person will be unhappy. They will lack the fulfillment-happiness a job is meant to bring, and they will probably also lose their comfort-happiness because their boss won't take kindly to the idea. In such a circumstance, when the person protests that they just want to be happy, the proper response is "Yes, you should be, but not that kind of happiness."

This is true on a theological level as well. It is true, from a certain angle, that God wants us to be happy. However, the problem is when we confuse our terms. Christianity is almost never about our comfort-happiness. It offers something more akin to fulfillment-happiness, but of a sort that worldly comfort often threatens.

This distinction is true in terms of our relationship with God. There should be pursuit of happiness in our faith. "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." (Psalm 37:4) However, notice the connection between those two passages. God is giving us the desires of our heart, but that only applies when the desires of our heart ultimately delight in Him. This is not a promise that our present circumstances will be pleasant, but rather that an ambition to find our joy in the Lord is an ambition which will be fulfilled.

Likewise, the Christian life is a call to pursue true fulfillment-happiness. Christian obedience is not some list of arbitrary rules - it is a call to become the creatures we were meant to be. To give ourselves to God's great labors, living as He intended us to live, working the world that He created us to work, caring for and building up each other rather than taking for ourselves. It is the ultimate sort of purpose - to become creatures that show His image to the world.

There is a happiness in such a calling, but it is not comfort-happiness. Scripture constantly insists that seeking such deep meaning and significance will, in fact, cost us our worldly ease, our immediate fulfillment, and ultimately our lives. The only way to turn toward Christlikeness, peace, and meaning is to turn from such passing things.  It is the meaning of Biblical axioms like "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)

Or, to put it another way, the danger we face is not that we want to be happy but that our vision for happiness is too small. There are joys in comfort-happiness, and everything I've said above shouldn't be seen as a denial for its place. A restful afternoon, a leisurely Saturday, an evening with friends, full bellies and full hearts - those are good blessings. However, they are only good when they remain incidental. They should be restful breaks from our journey, not the destination we are seeking.To live a life chasing comfort-happiness will, by definition, be a life that is unfulfilling.

Our calling is to seek a deeper and higher sort of happiness. It is the desire that animated our Savior. Scripture calls us to "[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2) Notice the motivation there - Jesus was willingly slaughtered for the "joy that was set before Him." But also notice that seeking that joy cost Him his comfort.

That is the happiness God promises. An ultimate happiness. One we grow into in this life, experiencing the love of our adoption into God's family, the purpose we share as those who bear His name, and the ultimate inheritance of an eternity spent living as the people He has made us to be.

However, if that is what we are chasing, we need to resist the reasoning of comfort-happiness that infects our world. Satan doesn't tempt us with the badness of sin but with the short-term goodness. It is what he offers Jesus in the desert - food and safety and worldly prosperity. (Matthew 4:1-11) It is only Jesus's commitment to pursuing true joy in God's ways that shows those temptations for what they are. Small things that would, if pursued, destroy the much greater things He was meant to do.

So this is the question for us - what sort of happiness are we seeking? If it is comfort, we will find some measure of it, but even that will ultimately be fleeting. But if it is God-given purpose, we will not only find it fulfilled but will also be able to properly enjoy the comforts along the way.

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