Are you happy? And—to press the issue—is happiness your aim in life?
I ask because the answer, yes, is widespread. The classical religions and their teachers—led by Greek and Roman philosophers in particular—made happiness an ultimate value.
Aristotle, for instance, was a “eudaimonist”—one who seeks goodness-satisfaction-happiness—and he made the state of happiness his measure of ethics. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—a virtue-based system defined by eudaimonic values—is present in much of modern moral thought.
Happiness was, in turn, at the heart of the 18th century Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, a child of that era, reflected this in his creedal Declaration of Independence by assuming that “the pursuit of happiness” is an ultimate and proper ambition for all.
Even today the pathway to personal happiness is a trajectory Baby-Boomers successfully passed along to their offspring. Entertainment—reflecting this transmission—is now central to Western life. Neil Postman’s prescient study of the 80’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was spot-on in anticipating how media would nurture this appetite among post-moderns—the realm of most teens and twenties today. Their screen-devices have become venues of happiness.
By now some readers may be wondering: “So where are you going with this; are you ready to say we should pursue unhappiness? Is your big ambition to be a gloom-monger?”
God forbid—that’s certainly not where I’m going. But let’s at least ask where following Christ will take us.
And I say “God forbid” advisedly because in Scriptures we find that God is not about the pursuit of happiness or unhappiness. Instead he warns us—as we move to a bottom line—that we must not eat the forbidden fruit of trying “to be like god” and, with that, of determining good and evil by our own measures. By missing this warning Aristotle and Jefferson were wrong. Both used human happiness as an anthropocentric measure of good and evil.
C. S. Lewis, by contrast, charted a proper trajectory in Surprised by Joy. His book—the story of his conversion to Christianity—tells of how he felt moments of joy in his early life. These brief encounters with joy—a term overlapped with happiness—became a fixation for Lewis. He found that joy couldn’t be predicted or controlled—it was real but ephemeral. So whenever he experienced joy he tried to capture it. That is, in the moment of joy he quickly made joy itself his focus; but in his trying to nail down the substance of joy it instantly evaporated.
Eventually it dawned on him that joy isn’t an independent quality—an emotional end in itself—but the result of encountering one who stirs joy in us: ultimately, God.
A distinction between joy and happiness is now worth noting. Both are positive emotions but in common usage happiness is more pleasure-centered—a video game, for instance, may keep a child happy for a time.
Joy, on the other hand, is a more complex emotion that can be sustained even in the face of pain or loss. I recall, for instance, my mother’s tears as my parents saw me off to university. She wasn’t happy—it wasn’t a pleasure for her—but in the moment of loss she also experienced joy in my moving forward in life. And, much more deeply, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Christ enduring his crucifixion “for the joy set before him.”
So let’s embrace joy as a proper longing rather than happiness. And, with that, let’s return to the lesson Lewis learned: joy is a relational word. We can find real joy in a someone rather than in a something. We might be “happy” with a new toy but the emotion fades as soon as the battery runs low, the fuel is used up, or the paint is scratched.
Joy, on the other hand, is ever and always reawakened whenever we see the smile of one we love and trust.
Why? Because God made us to be relational beings—made in the image of the eternally loving and trustworthy Father-Son-and-Spirit God. He, the relational One, captures us with his love and loveliness.
What, then, of the widespread ambition to be happy? Is it, perhaps, an ultimate idol meant by God’s Enemy to distract us from joy? Is it possible that in our pursuit of happiness we’ve replaced God with an unending appetite for shallow and fleeting pleasures?
Certainly, yes! And happiness is an idol so deeply entrenched in our hearts that we won’t see its falsity until by the Spirit’s urging we look away from self to see Christ gazing at us in his grief and love.
Repentance, by this measure, is a turning away from our toys, our devices, our material passions, and our degrading entertainments. In their place we look to Jesus who loves us and brings us to his Father.
In God’s communion, then, we find unending joy as it spreads first to us and then through us. Call it happiness if you like, or blessing, or delight—just be sure to keep the focus where it belongs: on Christ alone.