In just a few moments, I will be attending a party. The invitation to this party proclaims it as a “Happy Birthday, America!” party, and I am sure there will be all sorts of things to help the attendees at this party feel patriotic and happy – things like cake and ice cream, and patriotic songs and all sorts of games and the like.
In the Declaration of Independence, we read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As I am preparing to attend this party, I am thinking, “What does it take to make us happy?”
The most popular course in the history of Yale University was offered in the fall of 2017 — PSYCH 157: Psychology and the Good Life. Nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates registered for it.
Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the course, says that she “tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life.”
No wonder the course has caught on — a 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that “more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university” while enrolled.
One of Santos’ principle lessons is that the things Yale undergraduates most associate with achieving happiness — a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job — do not increase happiness at all.
“Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago,” Santos says. “Our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade, are totally wrong.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were several hundred studies about happiness published each year. By 2014, there were over 10,000 per year.
It was an exciting shift for psychology, one that the public immediately responded to. Major media outlets clamored to cover the new research. Soon, entrepreneurs began monetizing it, founding start-ups and programming apps to help ordinary people implement the field’s findings. They were followed by a deluge of celebrities, personal coaches, and motivational speakers, all eager to share the gospel of happiness.
According to Psychology Today, in 2000, the number of books published about happiness was a modest 50. In 2008, that number had skyrocketed to 4,000.
Of course, people have always been interested in the pursuit of happiness, but all that attention has made an impact: since the mid-2000s, the interest in happiness, as measured by Google searches, has tripled.
“The shortcut to anything you want in your life,” writes author Rhonda Byrne in her best-selling 2006 book The Secret, “is to BE and FEEL happy now!”
And yet, there is a major problem with the happiness frenzy: it has failed to deliver on its promise. Though the happiness industry continues to grow, as a society, we’re more miserable than ever. Indeed, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony — chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy.
And that includes spirituality as well. In a question-and-answer period after one of his lectures, C.S. Lewis was asked which of the world’s religions gives its followers the greatest happiness.
Lewis paused and said, “While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is best.”
In other words, if you and I want to experience happiness in a spiritual sense for a short period of time, we should create a religion that focuses on worshipping ourselves. But of course, his point was that is not only improbable, it is impossible, for that would mean that our religion would have a following of – count ‘em – one!
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. People all around the world have been happily celebrating, not the independence of the United States of America, but the safe deliverance of boys from a cave in Thailand, where they had been trapped for over two weeks.
Their safety is credited largely to the selfless giving of their 25-year-old coach, Coach Ake, who sacrificed everything he had for the sake of those boys. He gave them his food, showed them how to drink water from the cave’s walls, and taught them meditation techniques – all of which contributed to their safety and health, even at his own expense.
He was the last one out of the cave in the rescue attempts.
But even that does not make us happy for long. Next week there will be another tragedy, and perhaps another hero to capture our attention.
We may attempt to seek happiness for a short time through our own self-gratifying pleasures, but the “happiness glow” will wear off and we will need another shot to keep us going!
But the interesting thing is that true happiness, true contentment, IS found in Christ! The psalmist proclaimed that the truly happy man gets his delight from the Word of God (Psalm 1).
When a woman trusts in the Lord, “He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4).
The Apostle Paul, in the final days of his life, proclaimed that he had learned to be content, no matter what his circumstances were, trusting God to supply all his needs (Phil 4:11,19).
One of the wealthiest, most powerful men in all of world history was a fellow by the name of King Solomon. He had all that he would ever need and want.
But he was not happy. He honored God in the early days of his life and kingdom, but as he aged, he grew self-confident rather than God-confident.
He died an unhappy man, because he had lived his later life as a fool, choosing to live his life as if God can be ignored. Spirituality is never anything less than an uncompromising walk with God and His Word.
Happiness is possible, even though tragedies strike globally, nationally, and personally. But we must live our lives with one goal in mind: living to please Him (2 Corinthians 5:9)!
Chuck Tabor is a regular columnist for the Hillsboro Times-Gazette and the Wilmington News Journal. He is also the former Pastor of Faith Community Church in Hillsboro and Port William UMC.