Monday, July 18, 2011


One of the blessings of teaching writing is that I get to think about all kinds of topics--based on whatever the class is reading.

One semester I got to research the Enron debacle and greed.  Another semester we studied African-American rhetoric, slavery, and King.  Another semester we watched Food, Inc., and I became obsessed with eating naturally healthy foods and avoiding meat from CAFOs.  

I don't always get sucked in by the arguments we teach.  Sometimes I just think about things that I probably wouldn't have thought about otherwise.  

Right now we're reading about happiness.  Specifically, we are looking at research on what makes people happy.  

Apparently our American culture is obsessed with happiness, something that really isn't all that central if you don't have enough to eat on a daily basis or you live in a war zone.  And the irony is that studies show our country isn't any happier in 2011 than it was in the 1970s, when happiness research began.  

But that doesn't stop us from chasing after an increase in the happiness scale.  

First of all, a definition of happiness.  Oddly enough, the three articles we read for class have no criteria for measuring happiness other than what Daniel Bok describes as "subjective well-being."  In other words, if you think you're happy, you're happy. The scale makes sense.  Who, besides you, can tell you how happy you are?  

So I asked my students what makes them happy, and they came up with all kinds of things.  Parties.  New cars.  Hanging out with their friends.  Getting new clothes.  Acquiring a new cell phone or iPad.  

And in the introductory essays they wrote on the first day of class, in which I asked they why they decided to go to college, most of them told me they wanted to get a good education so they could get a good job so they could have a good life so they could be happy.  

But all of them acknowledged that parties and cars and hanging out with friends don't make them happy permanently.  Clothes get old.  Technology becomes obsolete.  

And not everyone graduating from college gets that amazing job.  Additionally, research consistently shows that once people make enough money to take care of basic needs, having more money doesn't make them happier.  

And so what makes us happy?  

A simplistic answer for Christians might be "knowing Jesus makes me happy," but I know Jesus and I'm not always jumping up and down.  And even if jumping up and down does not constitute subjective well-being for me, which it does not, I'm not always 10/10 on the happiness scale.  

Honestly, I'm hardly ever 10/10 on the happiness scale.  I'm not sure what that would look like.  

Moreover, I know a lot of Christians who aren't happy all the time, and quite a few that don't actually ever seem like they're happy.  

Researchers suggest that perhaps DNA or temperament plays a significant role in how we rate our own happiness.  You can't change that.  

So I'm left wondering if happiness, or subjective well-being, even ought to be a life objective, or if it is one of those serendipitous emotions we feel sometimes, but not always.  

At the same time, there's something to be said for being content with life and looking forward to the future.  And that makes me think of Paul in the book of Philippians.  

At the end of his letter, he thanks the people of Philippi for the monetary gift they gave him, and then he tells them, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances [in my life].  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."  (Philippians 4:11-12)

That's a pretty awesome secret.  So often we attach happiness to circumstances.  We say, "I will be happy when [fill in the blank]."

I will be happy when I finish my thesis.
I will be happy when I find a writing job.
I will be happy when I go on vacation.

I will be happy when I get a new laptop.
I will be happy when I get married.
I will be happy when I have children.
I will be happy when . . .

And the thing is, Paul is saying that happiness, or contentedness, or subjective well-being, is not dependent on circumstances.

And here is Paul's secret:

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

In redefining happiness, in separating his subjective well-being from his circumstances, Paul changes his expectations.  He puts his trust in God.  He prays about everything and worries about nothing.

He stops saying, "I will be happy when ____________" and rejoices in God's plan for him today.

And quite honestly this doesn't make a lot of sense logically.  It only makes sense if you absolutely believe God loves you and cares for you and wants to work through you in everything.  It only makes sense if you have hope in the future, if you keep in mind "the joy set before you."

Here I'm referencing Hebrews 12:2.  In this passage, the writer of Hebrews admonishes his readers to run the race set before them, no matter how hard it is, to remember those who have gone before, to keep their eyes on Jesus, who suffered the cross because of the joy of sharing in fellowship with all of them.  That's all of us.  

Certainty of happiness in the future, of joy in the future, equals strength to endure whatever happens today, and contentedness with whatever happens today, and even happiness or joy today.

But that certainly only comes through God's strength.

Again, none of this makes logical sense.  Unless you believe God loves you and loves mankind and wants to have fellowship with you.  Unless you believe that walking through difficulty or monotony will bring you into that fellowship.

And so I return to this idea of happiness.  Should this be a primary goal in our lives?  Should we keep chasing after the things that make us happy, for the sake of happiness?  Remember, research and experience demonstrate that most things that make us happy don't make us happy for very long.

For the record, I don't think Paul was chasing happiness.  I think he discovered contentment when he chased after God.  

1 comment:

n- said...

This is just what I've been struggling with. Somehow, in the midst of Sunday's service, I had the realization that my life is my life. It's what I've been given. At least for now. Can I accept it or not? Can I rejoice in it or not? I know I have to get beyond the feeling of endlessness that seems to be gripping me lately.