Essay / Culture

The Happiest Time of the Year

Do you want to be happy?

If you are an American, it is overwhelmingly likely that you do. Americans are preoccupied with being happy, especially during the Christmas holiday season. This creates false expectations and can easily lead to depression. People are also terribly confused about what happiness is and how it is obtained and, as a result, seldom find it. Since the time of Moses, Solomon, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the church Fathers like Augustine, through the Reformation and until around the seventeen hundreds in Britain, almost everyone agreed about what happiness was. When the Declaration of Independence says we have a right to the pursuit of happiness, the authors meant by the term what almost everyone had meant prior to that time. In this two-part series, I will explore the nature of happiness and how one obtains it. In this article, I shall clarify the contemporary misunderstanding of happiness, followed by a very brief introduction to an alternative view held by Jesus and most of the ancients. In part II, I shall go into great detail about this more classic view, contrast it with the contemporary understanding of happiness and show how the two imply completely different approaches to life.

The Contemporary Notion of Happiness

In the last hundred years or so, happiness has come to mean something quite different, and the shift in meaning is destroying people’s lives. A recent dictionary definition of happiness is “a sense of pleasurable satisfaction.” Note very carefully that happiness is identified with a feeling, and more specifically, a feeling very close to pleasure. Thus, we say “I got an A on the exam and I am so happy!” “My team won the championship and I am psyched and happy!” or “I just got engaged and I feel so happy!”

Today, the good life is a life of happiness, and it is the goal of most people for themselves and their children. A major talk radio host has interviewed hundreds of people over the last few years by asking the question “What did your parents want most for you—success, wealth, to be a good person, or happiness?” Eighty-five percent said “happiness.”

When my daughter’s eighth grade team was being creamed in a soccer game, the coach said at halftime, “Girls, don’t worry about the score. The reason we play soccer it to have fun, so let’s try to have a blast the second half and go home happy whatever the final result.” Ugh! I don’t think the coach had listened to Cindy Lauper’s song “Girls just a wanna have fun!” on the way to the game. No, he was mindlessly parroting the cultural mantra that pleasurable satisfaction is the goal of life. Among other things, the reason my wife and I wanted our daughter to play soccer was to learn how to win, to lose, to cooperate with others, to sacrifice for a long-term goal which requires delaying instant gratification, and—well, you get the picture. What was really sad was not simply the coach’s speech, but the fact that none of the parents so much as batted an eye at his assertion.

So what, you may be asking, is so wrong with happiness understood as a sense of pleasurable satisfaction or fun? In one sense, nothing. All things being equal, I would rather have fun than not have fun. But in another sense, everything. There are two main problems with this understanding.

First, it represents a serious departure from a more ageless definition. When the classic understanding is clarified, as I will do in the next section, then pleasurable satisfaction is exposed as of inferior value to the classic definition. Among other things, this lets people off the hook. They don’t have to be happy all the time to have a good life, a message that commercials, movies and magazines constantly shout at us. In a consumer culture, advertisers have a vested interest in creating in us a constant sense of dissatisfaction so we will buy products to regain happiness and satisfaction. This makes life a roller coaster and creates an insatiable need to be filled with pleasure. This is too much pressure for anyone to bear. Among other things, it implies that the hard virtues of discipline, sacrifice and their kin are intrinsically evil. Tell that to Mother Teresa!

Second, the contemporary sense of happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it. If you have ever tried to be happy, you know this is true. Pleasurable satisfaction makes a very poor lifetime goal; it is, however, a wonderful bi-product of striving after happiness in the classical sense. Think about it. If happiness is having an internal feeling of fun or pleasurable satisfaction, and if it is our main goal, where will people place their focus all day or week long? It will be on them, and the result will be a culture of self-absorbed narcissists who can’t live for something bigger than they are. Parents will view children as a means to their own happiness; marriage, work, and even God Himself will exist as a means to making me happy. The entire universe will revolve around my internal pleasure and me!

When people live for pleasurable satisfaction, they become empty selves and, because God did not make us to live for “happiness”, their lives fall apart. Professor Martin Seligman has spent his career studying happiness. In the late nineteen eighty’s, Seligman noted that with the baby boom generation, Americans experienced a ten-fold increase in depression compared to earlier generations. If any condition increases this much in the span of one generation, we are safe to say an epidemic has occurred. A cause and cure must be sought. To our knowledge, Seligman is not a Christian, but his insights read like they came from Holy Scripture! He claimed that the cause of this epidemic was the fact that baby boomers stopped imitating their ancestors and seeking daily to live for a cause—God, family, one’s country—bigger than they and, instead, spent from morning to night trying to live for themselves and their own pleasurable satisfaction. It is clear that such a strategy brings depression, not pleasure or much else.

An Hint at an Alternative View

According to the historical record of Jesus deeds and teachings, there was one incident in his adult life that may well have been a turning point, a climax in his public activities, second only to his execution, resurrection and ascension. This incident occurred at a time when Jesus made clear to those to whom he would entrust his mission just exactly who he was and what lay before him. Of paramount importance for raising children, being a good father or mother, learning to be a good boss or employee, or simply flourishing as a human, is Jesus’ selection of topics to address immediately after making his identity clear. Clearly, the timing of what he taught indicates the fundamental centrality of the teaching itself. Here is his assertion just as it rolled off of his very own lips:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, `If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-25)

It is of critical importance to grasp the core of what is being asserted. While an important part of the gospel, the act of coming to Jesus goes beyond receiving forgiveness. It also includes accepting and living out the claim that the kingdom of God, the direct availability of God Himself and His rule, is now available to anyone who will enter it through trust in Jesus, and such an entrance provides the believer with the power and resources to learn how to live a radically new kind of live from above and in approximation to the sort of life Jesus Himself lived, a life that radically and progressively manifests the fruit of God’s Spirit in one’s life (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus’ invitation to come to Him is invitation to new life in the Kingdom lived from the power of the indwelling Spirit and the resurrected power of Jesus himself. Properly understood, it is an invitation to a life of happiness obtained in a very specific sort of way. But just exactly what is this sort of happiness and how does one obtain it? And how does the classic understanding of happiness relate to the current one? The answer to these questions will have to wait until Part II.

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