Don’t worry. Be happy! Sounds easy enough. Human hearts ache for a happiness serum to drink down as an antidote to life’s angst. Happiness is a relevant topic for modern discussion because its pursuit spans culture, age, and geography. We all want it. We’ve all pursued it. What exactly are we pursuing, and does it even make sense that we are pursuing it? Despite the world’s vigorous striving toward it, its pursuit is flawed both logically and spiritually.
Some say that happiness is too slippery a definition to discuss because one person’s idea of happiness may be different than the next. Yet, as I’ve researched psychological definitions within academia – both historical and modern – and compared them to descriptions from the everyday public, there are themes that emerge with remarkable consistency. Instead of choosing one theorist’s definition at the expense of the rest, I’ll propose here a broad, two-fold definition that captures the consistent themes of what it seems that we are most consistently pursuing. Happiness is the absence of misery and the presence of peace.
The Pursuit of Happiness
When I scanned the current literature on happiness it reminded me of a theory that I learned in school called Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs. It summarizes all human needs into five distinct categories and suggests that certain needs must be met before others. The bottom level represents our fundamental physical requirements like food and water, and our needs for safety, belonging, and esteem are stacked on top of one other forming a tower of sorts that leads to the ultimate goal at the top – ‘self-actualization’.
Current books on peace and happiness suggest strategies that will improve one or more of our human needs. Want to improve your physicality? Read books on diet and exercise. Want to feel a greater sense of belonging to others? Research how to be socially winsome. Need greater emotional happiness? Investigate how to manage feelings of rejection. Each book is designed to address our dissatisfaction at all levels of human need, to the end-point of happiness which dangles like a carrot to bait and fulfill us at last.
Problems With Pursuing Happiness
There are many problems with self-help books written on happiness and the notion that ultimate peace awaits us if we pursue it just right. The first problem is that we are pursuing happiness within an environment that does not support happiness. Life may be chugging along well until we get that shocking, unexpected diagnosis. Once we get our mind around the bad news, we may pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and try to rebuild our happiness tower again. But then a friend betrays us and our happiness tower crumbles once more. Bracing ourselves, we inch onward only to suffer the sting of rejection through gossip. Our tower cracks…again. Ongoing requirements to call on our human resilience and rebuild our happiness towers over and over, makes its pursuit exhausting in its endlessness. We are pursuing happiness within an environment that does not support its attainment.
Even religious books are plentiful with assortments of spiritual practices that seek to scratch the itch of final happiness that remains unresolved. Yet when we look carefully at religious options, the pursuit of happiness becomes bleaker indeed. What religion offers is more to do. Pray at certain times, live more simply, take a pilgrimage, go to church, help the needy, pay penance for your sins by completing five more tasks, obey the rules. More. Just when we thought that we might be getting close to peace through some type of spiritual approach, the exhausting ‘To Do’ list not only continues, it magnifies.
Another issue with pursuing happiness is that even when life is calm, and calamity appears distant, there remains a niggling question inside all of us that wonders, Is this it? Am I happy – at peace? Where does this question coming from and why does it remain when I’ve reached the top of the tower? Famed psychologist Sigmund Freud notably said, ‘The pursuit of happiness is doomed.’
The Pursuit Of Jesus
Jesus gives a different solution toward achieving ultimate peace. While every other religion and human theory provides a To Do list of strategies to complete, Jesus says that what we need to do is absolutely nothing. The bible name for this ‘do-nothingness’ is called grace, and it is a crucial, distinguishing element that separates Christianity from every other faith and theory on the table. When the brokenness of this world topples us over, our human efforts to stay resilient may help somewhat, but they won’t ultimately satisfy, and they will eventually exhaust. In Jesus, our human needs may be rattled in life’s calamity, but we will stand – not because we are holding onto psychological or religious principles but because Jesus is holding onto us.
Jesus is watching us run ourselves ragged on the hamster wheel of unhappiness – endlessly trying to reach self-actualization, which is happiness, which is peace. Since true peace is only found in Christ, He decided to come down to us because He knew that our attempts to build towers up to peace would fail. Through Jesus’ life on earth He modelled what perfect peace looks like while walking around on human legs and operating within the same broken environment that we do. When He died on the cross and paid the penalty for our shame He made peace between us and God. Because He conquered death He now offers us His peace to carry us during times of brokenness. It’s not just that we do nothing – it’s that Jesus did everything. Other religions encourage spiritual practices in order to make peace between God and themselves. Christian religious practices do not produce peace, they are responses of worship to the One who already made peace for us. The person and work of Jesus show us the exit ramp off of the hamster wheel of unhappiness, and offers us the indwelling presence of His resurrected peace instead.
The pursuit of happiness is indeed doomed, but the indwelling presence of Jesus’ is a promise. When we struggle, the issue may not be that we need more of Jesus, but a deeper appreciation of the One who we already have inside. When we are plagued with unmet needs and hear the inner whisper of dissatisfaction, we mustn’t cheer one another on toward rebuilding our happiness towers, but point one another to the Solution that came down to save us from the endless construction. Our ultimate pursuit is not happiness, but to bring God glory by any means that He appoints necessary to endure. Any unhappiness we experience is appointed along with the peace of Jesus to rule our hearts, and serves as a reminder that this world is not our home. When we get home to heaven, the ultimate fulfillment of our definition of happiness will at last be realized – not in self-actualization but in Jesus. For all eternity, the absence of misery will be a permanent reality and we will enjoy of the presence of Jesus – who is our peace – forever.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.