Happiness is our culture’s Holy Grail. From the time we hear “happily ever after” in a bedtime story, we know that happiness means success.
Our consumerist society sells us products on the promise of it, and self-help books fly off the shelves when they tell us how to get it. In a spiritually barren West, the pursuit of happiness is a faux religion.
Christians aren’t too different. We may not necessarily think happiness is everything life is about – but when we dream of the future, we see blessings in terms of happiness. Same as anyone else, we talk about having a fulfilling career, pursuing a happy marriage, and raising contented children.
It’s only human to long for happiness. Many people will spend their whole lives chasing after it.
Yet today, there’s mounting evidence that this pursuit of happiness is making us miserable.
Everything from advertisements to romantic comedies and social media can give us a distorted keyhole into what “happiness” really looks like. We imagine happiness as an absence of negative emotions, a sought-after destination that’s attached to certain people and things. If only we can find the right conditions, it can be ours, we think.
With this rose-tinted version of what our lives could be, we forget there’s limited evidence that we can really get there.
For one, our culture’s continual pressure on us to be happy is making us even more anxious and depressed. Not only do perfect lives not exist, but the euphoria that we call “happiness” is not a constant state of being. Although our friendships, relationships and experiences can help us hit a temporary high, they inevitably can’t “make us happy” consistently. Our feelings change like the weather, and we can’t be euphoric always.
What’s more, many of us will have experienced that the most important, fulfilling things in life don’t, in fact, always make us happy. Helping others, pursuing careers, navigating relationships and marriage, and having children are all things that can be incredibly difficult. None are a silver bullet to happiness – yet we recognise their intrinsic worth.
The truth is, investing people and things with the task of “making us happy” is making us more stressed and disillusioned than before. We’re terrified of making a life that’s not happy. And more and more people are realising it.
Jim Carrey famously commented,
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.
Even self-help gurus are moving away from the idea of pursuing “happiness”, instead talking about “meaning” or “fulfillment”.
Fascinatingly, this is an area where the Bible is already way ahead of prevailing psychology.
It’s typified in Ecclesiastes, part of the wisdom literature of the Bible, which famously talks about the pursuit of happiness – and the failure to find it. The narrator goes through a laundry list of every angle he’s come at to prove the meaning of life. He’s had wine, women and song, but he’s seen that it’s all nothing – a “chasing after the wind”:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind
Nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
Chasing after money never satisfies. Living for work, or for pleasure, are both the same. Whether you are good or bad, wise or foolish, every one of us meets the same fate. The narrator concludes, then, that you may as well chase happiness – if this is all there is. But he doesn’t believe that’s true:
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
Enjoyment can’t be found absent from God. The thesis of the book is this, “Life is meaningless.” (With the caveat: “… without God.”)
To the uninitiated, Ecclesiastes is a shocking book to have in the Bible. But it’s my favourite book because of its blunt assessment of the situation. The narrator has literally tried everything that can make him happy, but he now knows that only God can do that.
It’s a very human story. And it got me thinking.
We crave happiness – but we are looking for it in all the wrong places.
The truth is – no career, salary, spouse, children, holiday, life-changing experience or lottery winnings can make me happy.
I can demand it of them, but they can’t sustain that kind of pressure. They weren’t designed to.
All these things can do is give me a glimpse of what God gives me. But we idolise the things, and forget the source. Too often, I chase after things that I think will make me happy – then inevitably, once I gain what I’m after, I discover that it can’t give me what I wanted. And so the cycle continues.
We’re able to see this with relationships that end once the buzz of being “in love” goes away. We see this with workers who jump from job to job, chasing fulfillment. We see it in parents who think children will fill their emptiness, only to discover that their children bring their own problems.
In this way, pop psychology is right. Happiness isn’t the goal – the goal is to have a meaningful life. But the truth is, meaning can’t come from anything else but God.
How I can find happiness is not through what I have.
Sometimes, I can sit back and want things around me to align for me to be happy. It can cause me to blame friends and family, choices, workplaces and whatever else for making me unhappy. But I’ve got it backwards.
The euphoria of happiness isn’t what satisfies. It’s brief. What does satisfy is having the knowledge of the deepest joy imaginable, united with a God who is the source of everything lovely, beautiful and praiseworthy.
What I’m after can’t be given to me by anything in this world – however much our culture tells me otherwise. I can chase after those things. I can sink into cynicism. Or, I can look to the person who’s the source of true happiness.
Where happiness starts is in knowing my identity is in Christ. My life isn’t meaningless. I’m a child of God. I have a purpose. I am loved.