A friend of mine was once driving along on a rainy morning when suddenly his car hit an oily patch and spun out of control. He tried to regain control of the vehicle as it fishtailed down the road, but his efforts were futile. After sliding from side to side several times, the back wheels collected the curb, causing the vehicle roll repeatedly. Eventually the car came to rest right side up and as he sat clutching the steering wheel in a hot sweat—shaken but unhurt—the radio started playing the song, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
I believe everyone wants to be happy because that’s the way God created us. God designed us for life—abundant life at that—and happiness is an essential ingredient for good living. Given our fascination with happiness, it’s remarkable that its taken until now for research psychologists to seriously turn their attention to the phenomenon. They have begun to ask questions like, “What is happiness?” and “What brings happiness?” What is most intriguing is the findings of the numerous studies on the state we call “happiness” powerfully endorse what the Bible has been teaching us for thousands of years.
The man largely responsible for the new scientific focus on happiness is leading psychologist and reformed pessimist Dr Martin Seligman. In 2000, Dr Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and at that time was asked to choose a theme for the period of his presidency. After a fortuitous scolding from his five-year-old daughter who told him he should not be such a grouch, Dr Seligman had an epiphany. He realised his fellow psychologists spent all their time dealing with the negative. He noticed the professionals in his field were in the business of trying to get people from a negative score on the “feel-good” scale to a zero.
When were psychologists given the opportunity to empower individuals to be a positive five or even a positive 10? Dr Seligman decided the way forward would be the study of positive emotions and he is now a leading researcher, author and spokesperson for the revolution labelled “the positive psychology movement.”
So what brings happiness? Well, perhaps a better place to start is to identify the things that don’t. A common misconception is that money—and plenty of it—is a stepping-stone to happiness. Conversely, others believe, and many Christians among them, that money corrupts. I once heard someone wistfully say, “All I ask for in life is the opportunity to demonstrate that money won’t corrupt me.” So is money a pathway to happiness?
Research indicates that in order to be happy we do need the basics. It is more challenging to be cheery when you are sitting in the rain because you don’t have a roof over your head or while your stomach screams at you from hunger. But after our basic needs are met, it seems money contributes little to our level of happiness. The very rich aren’t necessarily happier than the very poor when everything else is equal. Over the past half-century in the Western world, affluence and standards of living have steadily increased, but surveys report the levels of happiness remain unchanged. So it seems happiness can’t be bought.
Career doesn’t guarantee happiness either. If it’s happiness you’re seeking, pursuing it by climbing the corporate ladder to the top could find you staring at the wrong wall. Studies within companies have found similar levels of happiness reported by employees, middle management and senior management.
We are all created differently and have an aptitude for different things. The Bible speaks often of gifts and talents and how they are not distributed equally, thank goodness! So it’s not the type of work we do that promotes or reduces our level of happiness; it is what it means to us.
Finally, love doesn’t necessarily bring happiness either. Married people report similar levels of happiness to singles, except around the courting and wedding period, when there is an upward inflection in their happiness scores. This peak tends to level out once married life becomes routine and happiness scores return to baseline (hopefully they don’t fall below).
Yet it does seem that love offers the opportunity for greater happiness. In one survey, when individuals were asked what brought them the greatest amount of happiness in their life, the most common responses related to family and friends. Indeed, relationships have the effect of magnifying our emotions. The good get better and the bad get worse. It would seem then that if times with family and friends are mostly happy ones, then that happiness will be all the greater.
Conversely, if the relationship is a miserable one, the misery will be all the more unbearable. Love and relationships have the potential to make us happier on the whole, but just being in a relationship does not guarantee good times.
So what is the best path to happiness? The answer depends to a large extent on the type of happiness you are seeking. After much research, Dr Seligman has identified three forms—or levels—of happiness: pleasure, engagement and meaning.
Have you recently indulged yourself in an episode of uncontrollable laughter? You know the kind—your cheeks hurt, your stomach feels like you have done 1000 sit-ups, and between breaths you plead with the source of your entertainment to stop. Its good to engage in a belly laugh from time to time. To laugh is pleasurable.
A good giggle actually does us the world of good. Laughter stimulates the release of stress-relieving hormones similar to those released during strenuous exercise. So the high we get from laughter is real and the good vibe finds its way to the outermost parts of our bodies. There are actually stories of individuals who have laughed their way out of illness and into health. Solomon was right, “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
Many people confuse pleasure with happiness. Western culture increasingly fosters the idea that the path to happiness involves being regularly entertained and through the acquisition of bigger and better things. But while this may provide us with a temporary high, ultimately we are left feeling empty. It is not surprising then that Dr Seligman has learned that pleasure–happiness is the most superficial level of happiness. King Solomon would agree with him.
Living on earth in its present state guarantees days without laughter and if our happiness is carried on the wings of pleasure, it will often fly away. Barbara Johnson, Christian author of So Stick a Geranium in Your Hat and Be Happy, says that in life “pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” She has found that deep happiness can be maintained through loss and pain, and after living through many tragic life experiences she is well qualified to give advice on the subject. In conclusion, it’s clear, to arrive at deep happiness we need something that extends beyond the pursuit of pleasure.
Dr Csikszentmihalyi is a world authority on happiness. In one study he issued individuals with pagers that would buzz at random times during the day. When the pager sounded, the individual would document what they were doing and how “into it” they were. He found that when people were “engaged” in an activity, they experienced a state he referred to as “flow.” In a state of “flow,” people are connected to the experience and they feel truly alive. Everything seems effortless and new things are viewed as a challenge rather than an obstacle. Not surprisingly, Dr Csikszentmihalyi found those who spent a good portion of their time absorbed in what they were doing reported higher levels of happiness than their less engaged counterparts.
Bible writer Paul made some provocative comments relating to engagement: “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that.” Have you seriously appraised your talents? Paul is clearly stating that you have been assigned a work, a calling. Do you know what it is? When you find it I guarantee you will have no trouble sinking yourself into it. He continues, “Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life” (Galatians 6:4, 5, The Message).
Paul also warns of the threats to engagement. “Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others,” he says. The moment we glance sideways at others to determine whether we are doing better or worse than them, we are distracted from our calling. Are you distracted from your personal best by drawing comparisons? Do you look down on others as a way to make yourself feel better? These are serious questions because in their answers lie the second key to our happiness, engagement.
Dr Seligman regards engagement as the second level of happiness. True engagement will bring more happiness than pleasure alone. But even an individual who enjoys their work and has plenty of giggles will still sense something is lacking. Like the rich young man who asked Jesus, “What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20), they can be left feeling something is amiss. Pleasure and engagement are not enough to complete the happiness equation; a third factor is required
We often flippantly use the expression, “It doesn’t matter.” But things always matter—just to a greater or lesser degree. For humans, the extent to which something matters means a lot. When something matters to us, we deem it important and place meaning upon it. Protecting, promoting or caring for it inspires our greatest efforts. Throughout history, the greatest achievements and advances have been made by individuals who laboured for a cause that mattered deeply to them.
I believe the need to feel we matter is woven into our very fabric. In God, that need is satisfied, and He meets our need to matter in several ways. First, God makes it unmistakably clear, particularly in the Gospels, we are of tremendous value. That value is not derived from who we are, rather whose we are.
As humans we tend to place value on things according to their usefulness. A car with no engine is not that valuable, a functioning car is. And we apply the same principle to other people. Of course this is great news if you have an obvious talent, but not so good if your talent is more obscure. But to God, we all matter for no other reason than we are His creation.
There is a children’s book written by Max Lucado that should be read to every child on a regular basis. Titled You’re So Special, the story’s characters are little wooden people called “Wemmicks.” They spend their time giving each other shining star stickers if they do something impressive or dull grey dot stickers if they mess up. It is a powerful counterpoint to what we “grown-ups” do to each other on a daily basis. At the end of the story a dot-ridden “Wemmick,” Punchenello, meets his maker who tells him the stickers mean nothing. “You are special because I made you,” says the Creator, “and I don’t make junk.” This is a profoundly powerful idea to embrace and it liberates those who do.
Paul phrased it this way: “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him” (Romans 12:3, The Message). One of the greatest gifts we can offer our children is the sense that they are of great value to us. Our heavenly Father offers that to us. When we reflect upon God’s love for us, it is easy to wonder why a being so vast and infinite would be interested in someone so small and seemingly insignificant as ourselves. But the answer is simple and stated eloquently by the concluding lyrics of the song titled “Who am I?” by Casting Crowns: “You tell me who I am, I am yours.” We belong to the Almighty and that is an impressive notion. We matter. You matter. Claiming that realisation will empower you with enthusiasm and peace, and bring profound happiness.
God also works within us, creating a sense of meaning and mattering and the Bible continually returns to the theme: we belong to something bigger than ourselves and we have a part to play in it. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens us to a body part, interconnected and intertwined with many other parts quite different to and distinct from ourselves. Yet all the while we strive toward a common goal. We are part of something greater than ourselves and so we matter and have meaning.
This meaning—having a sense of significance and contribution—is considered by Dr Seligman the third and deepest level of happiness. The happiness that comes from meaning surpasses the other types of happiness because it lasts and is unaffected by whether a good or bad thing has happened to us. Furthermore, meaning leads to engagement and pleasure.
Does God want us to be happy?
Time magazine recently ran an article titled “Does God want us to be happy?” (January 17, 2005). At first I thought it was a ridiculous question. Then it occurred to me that indeed many people view God as a killjoy intent on ruining their fun and happiness. Many Christians even live out this attitude. So perhaps the question is warranted: Does God want us to be happy?
In the most famous sermon ever spoken, Jesus outlined profound wisdom in the collection of sayings known as the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:3-10). The Good News Bible commences each beatitude with the words, “Happy are those.
. . .” A little later Jesus reiterated, “Happy are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28).
God wants us to be happy, and the kind of happiness He wants for us goes way beyond giggles and smiles. God is not concerned with pleasure, the superficial kind of happiness. He is concerned with the deepest level of happiness, meaning. Meaning is what our hearts really ache for.