I’ve been thinking for the last month or so on the idea of happiness, and after having gone over several different things relating to this, I’d like to share my thoughts.
There’s a scene in the movie Tombstone where an actress asks Wyatt Earp if he’s happy, and after stammering for a bit he asks her the same question, to which her response is “I’m always happy…unless I’m bored.” and I think this just might be our culture’s response too. The idea that boredom is somehow linked to happiness, such that if you can cure boredom you should be happy, is a fascinating idea, and one that I think has some consequences.
For a while I found it interesting that people seemed incapable of defining what happiness was. It was always linked with other things, which made it seem like they were simply attaching the notion/emotion of happiness to those things, rather than seeking happiness itself. Of course, you see this sort of thing all the time, what with all the “They say money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you ___ , and that’s basically the same thing.” memes floating around.
So what is happiness? Well, I think it’s a temporary emotional/mental state that can be caused by all sorts of things. It’s the temporary aspect of it that interests me most, because I remember reading somewhere that an effect of the fall (read Genesis 3) is that we can’t remain in various “good” states. I’ll leave the theological aspect of that statement aside, but when combined with the following quote from C.S. Lewis, it really got me thinking: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
With those things in mind, I settled on a further definition of happiness, not only is it a temporary emotional/mental state, but it is also the shadow of joy. The idea of joy, to me, seems like it is more grounded than happiness. I think you could think of joy as being happiness mixed with contentment. The Bible has a lot to say about joy, and while sometimes it does seem to be used synonymously with happiness, I think most of the time it’s pointing to something more than that. This contrasts greatly with the secular society’s definition of happiness.
I think before we go further, it might be helpful to look at why joy is lacking from the secular world, and instead there is nothing but a mad rush for happiness. Happiness, isn’t bad in itself, but when it becomes an idol, it is. Just do a quick search through Amazon for books relating to the word “happy” and you’ll see that happiness is big business. Everyone wants to sell the secret to happiness, and especially lifelong happiness. We have a society that is driven by the next, new, thing. Therefore, you won’t be happy until you have the new thing, so you really don’t want someone to be happy for a lifetime, since that might lessen their desire for your product. Ravi Zacharias has a great quote to this end: “The driving force behind our thriving marketing industry and the sovereignty of technopoly (to use Neil Postman’s phrase) is to create new hungers to help us forget old ones.”
But there is something deeper here as well, and I think it has to do with the idea of purpose or meaning. Here, again, Ravi is on point
“Every now and then I am tempted to ask the speaker in an academic setting what he or she means by the statement ‘I have found meaning in life.’ Is there an agreed-upon unit of measurement by which we can all exclaim ‘There it is!’? Or are we condemned to wallow in culturally relative quotients, ever changing the point of reference and relegating meaning to a sense of happiness or to how one feels at a given moment? More often than not I fear, this is, indeed, the level to which any treatment on meaning is reduced; why else would a nation consider the pursuit of happiness as fundamental to its existence?”
I will leave the issues of whether or not the pursuit of happiness has been misused to those who know more about law than I do, but I think the quote is quite potent nonetheless. In order to not invoke a sense of transcendence for meaning in life (a point I’ll get back to later), secularism has to ground meaning in humanity somehow (since evolution is, they admit, purposeless). You see various social systems (marxism, communism, etc.) wrestle with how this works, but basically, feeling good is the greatest way to have purpose in your life, and however that looks for you, then go for it. This can take any number of forms, not all of them bad, but this does leave the eventual end of all things a rather glaring problem with trying to ground meaning in happiness.
Christianity has another answer to the question of how to find meaning in life, and it has to do with joy. As we looked at earlier, joy seems to be a good mix of happiness and contentment, but where does joy get its contentment from? The ancient philosophers talked about “the good” and how certain things in life can be traced back to it. And while there are large conversations to be had on the pros and cons of their analysis (see Plato and Aristotle on the subject), there is a different direction to go than they often went.
Christians maintain that God is good. It is an aspect of His character, and therefore is the grounding of all goodness that is experienced or found in this life. And since He is the grounding of all goodness, than this is where we find the grounding for joy (contentment + happiness). This is why Paul could say that he had learned to be content in all things (Phil. 4:10-13), and why rapper KB can say that “life isn’t breathing, life is knowing God”.
Happiness comes and goes, and as such it points us to the grounding of happiness, joy, contentment, and goodness, and that is God. Seek Him, while He may be found. (Isaiah 55:6)