The Pursuit of Happiness

Is it possible to will yourself happy? Should we even try?

You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker: My life before Jesus = a blue, sad face. My life after Jesus = a yellow, happy face. After which comes the rather cocky phrase: ‘Any questions?’ Yes, actually, I do have questions. Big ones. Can becoming Christian really ping you out of the blues into a perma-smile state of jolly yellow?

Christians are certainly not universally viewed as oozing happiness. ‘People look at us and think we are principled and good people, but there isn’t much joy or happiness about us. It’s really sad, as John 10:10 calls us to live life to the full,’ says evangelist and comedian Mark Ritchie.

Pick up any magazine and you can guarantee a feature telling you about the latest way to find happiness. In a 2013 survey, 82% of UK respondents agreed with the statement: ‘I won’t settle for anything less than what makes me happy.’ (Source: VIMN Research & Insights.) We view happiness as a right, and we’re willing to try to track it down at great cost. 

Technology is tapping into the happiness-hunting market too. In line with the growing trend for self-analytics, the Mappiness app was launched by the London School of Economics as part of a research project looking into how our feelings are affected by features in our environment – the amount of noise or green space we encounter, for example. Up to five times a day you can log how you’re feeling, assisting LSE in their research and simultaneously helping you track how factors in your daily life affect your happiness levels.

Sharing his views about Mappiness on Radio 4 recently, former archbishop Rowan Williams described the concept of logging how happy you are on a scale of 1-10 as a ‘joke’. A narcissistic, navel-gazing quest for happiness based on the pursuit of shallow, worldly things or experiences will only lead to dissatisfaction, goes the traditional Christian critique of the secular happiness hunt.

There’s another strain of Christian thought to mention here: joy, which many Christians view as distinct from happiness. Can I be joyful, celebrating in my God, his forgiveness and salvation – and unhappy at the same time?

Best-selling American author Joyce Meyer says that we simply need to ‘choose’ happiness. But can we do so in the face of bereavement, depression and tragedy – from which no Christian is immune? On the flip side, if putting your faith in Christ doesn’t equate to a happier life, surely we’re offering some pretty flaky ‘good news’?

What is happiness?

Becoming a Christian does bring happiness, says Andrew Parnham, founder of The Happiness Course launched by charity Livability last year. ‘Many studies today show that people of faith (who practise it) are, generally speaking, happier, healthier and longer-living than those without faith,’ he says. But, as he expresses it – ‘happiness is a slippery word’. I’m no happiness guru, so I tried to examine happiness through fresh eyes. Here are ten things I learned along the way…

1. Happiness is more than simple pleasure

Is happiness simply about laughter and pleasure? ‘For some, happiness means a smiley face, full of laughter – and pleasure all the time. On this basis, most of us would fail the “happiness” test,’ Parnham says. Instead, he has based his course on an understanding of happiness derived from psychologist Martin Seligman’s three-fold definition. ‘This covers most areas of life (body, soul and spirit), with the emphasis less on “me” and sheer pleasure, and more on “others” and the bigger picture,’ Parnham explains. ‘This resonates with the biblical view, as well as being what we often intuitively feel.’

2. Rejoicing generates happiness

John Partington, author of The Happiness Factor (New Wine Press) and national leader of the UK’s Assemblies of God group of churches, says happiness (which is referred to around 30 times in the Bible) and joy (which gets 300 mentions) are separate biblical entities. ‘Happiness is very dependent upon “happenings”, ie our surroundings or circumstances, whereas joy is something deep within us. God can make us happy, but he certainly gives us joy. Therefore Christians can experience inner joy even in the most difficult of circumstances, but they may not feel happy,’ he says. The Greek root of the word joy is chara, meaning to be ‘exceedingly glad’ – the epistles are packed with references to rejoicing in God even through extreme hardship. 

Evangelist and author Eric Delve argues that happiness and joy are interwoven, however. ‘Joy is the interior quality that generates happiness as an exterior characteristic,’ he says. ‘Our joy is based on the reality that concrete things have happened to us – our sins have been forgiven! God loves me! I have been empowered by the Holy Spirit! That should make us pretty happy.’

Secular voices such as that of author and speaker Brené Brown also identify rejoicing – or a grateful outlook – as leading to happiness. ‘I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude,’ says Brown in an interview published in Psychology Today.

3. Develop happy attitudes

Happiness is understood in both Old and New Testaments as interchangeable with being ‘blessed’. In Genesis 30:13 Leah is happy because Zilpah will bear a second son to Jacob. Leah names him ‘Asher’, meaning ‘to set right’ or ‘be

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) Jesus uses the word ‘happy’ – makarios in the original Greek – which can also be translated as ‘blessed’. ‘Jesus clearly had more than positive emotions in mind when he was talking about happiness,’ says Parnham of this passage. ‘He said “happy are the poor” and “happy are those that mourn”.’

Delve says that the Beatitudes are Jesus’ guide to the kind of attitudes we need to develop if we want to generate happiness as a lifestyle. ‘Jesus is speaking about having the kind of character that is in line with the nature of God and that naturally allows the joy of heaven to flow into us so that we are happy people, even when all hell breaks loose,’ he says.

4. Bin the forced smiles

Parnham’s understanding of happiness incorporates feeling the full spectrum of our emotions – meaning we’re free from pressure to fake a smile. ‘Should Christians be smiling all the time? Well, no – Ecclesiastes tells us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (ESV), and Paul encourages us in Romans 12 to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (ESV). The Bible understands life (including happiness) to encompass all kinds of very real and down-to-earth situations, including bereavement and persecution,’ Parnham says.

5. Unhappiness can be good

Christian author Annie Carter believes we need to embrace unhappiness. ‘To experience a range of human emotion is to be accepted as part of life and is built into our psyche; it’s good for us’ she writes on her blog,

Think for a moment on a time when you altruistically chose to do something selfless or particularly kind. What motivated you? Carter argues that our unhappiness – or ‘restlessness’, as she prefers to term it – is actually good for us, as long as it becomes the driver for us ‘make stepping stones of change’. So a lack of happiness can be used by God for good.

I’m not convinced that the feeling of happiness is a worthy goal

‘Imagine if William Wilberforce had been happy with the political status and standing in the community he had attained. Imagine if Michelangelo had been happy to paint just one corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s precisely our unhappiness, our dissatisfaction with the way things are, that compels us into action and to pursue change in the situations around us. It’s in our time of discontent that we can be stirred to make a difference,’ she says.

6. Question your feelings

Do we rely too heavily on our own emotional intelligence when it comes to assessing our how happy we are? ‘Much of contemporary Protestantism (at least in the US) depends on feeling,’ says Mindy Makant, assistant professor of religion at Lenoir-Rhyne University, USA. ‘But our feelings are as fallen as our will; they can be deceptive…It is distinctly possible to feel quite happy while acting in the most atrocious of ways. And it is likewise distinctly possible to be acting faithfully (by speaking out against injustice, for example) but not feel particularly happy because of the ramifications of such a faithful act. I’m not convinced that the feeling of happiness is a worthy goal.'

7. Happiness isn’t a right

Globally, 94% of 12-30 year-olds think that it is a right of all people to be happy. (Source: VIMN Research & Insights) Have we, the Church, also subtly imbibed the idea that it’s our right to be happy? In a piece entitled ‘The happiness of pursuit’, in Time magazine July 2013, we read: ‘All human beings may come equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse – the urge to find lusher land just over the hill, fatter buffalo in the next valley – but it’s Americans who have codified the idea, written it into the Declaration of Independence and made it a central mandate of the national character.’

We need to distinguish our freedom to know and love God as a far greater one than the freedom to pursue happiness, Makant explains. ‘As wonderful an ideal as the American notion of political freedom is, such freedom cannot be conflated with the freedom of the gospel. ‘Christian freedom is not, as St Paul says, a gift to be used as “an opportunity for self-indulgence” (Galatians 5:13) but the freedom to give ourselves in loving service…it has absolutely nothing to do with a truncated notion of a happiness that is defined – at least in America – in terms of consumer choice.'

8. Pursue a friendship with God

A better understanding of happiness could be remarkably simple: enjoying relationship with God. Thomas Aquinas defined happiness as friendship with God. ‘Though friendship with God is our telos – it is why we were created – friendship
is not automatic. We have to learn how to be friends…intimacy with God is developed through intentional spiritual practices and habits...Such habits form us into people of virtue capable of living as the friends of God we are created to be,’ Makant says.

9. Stop seeking happiness

Could the answer to finding happiness be to stop seeking it? Jesus never mentioned seeking happiness – but instead pouring our energies into relationship with him: ‘…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33). Could happiness be a spin-off?

It’s not exclusively Christians who think that pursing happiness as an end in itself is a fruitless, dissatisfying task. Speaking at the atheist School of Life, London, Lord Richard Layard (founder of the Happiness Movement, says: ‘If everyone pursued their own happiness, we wouldn’t have a society where people were happy. What would make us happy was a society where people lived for each other’s happiness. This gospel of altruistic living works on two levels. If I do something for you, you feel better. Also, in most cases, I feel better…’

Other secular voices chime together with the same message: don’t chase happiness and you’ll find it strangely appears. Journalist and philosopher Jules Evans writes: ‘John Stuart Mill once remarked: “Those only are happy who have their
minds fixed on some other object.” This is the paradox of happiness – if you try too hard to reach it, you’ll never arrive. Henry David Thoreau noticed the same paradox, suggesting that happiness was like a butterfly: The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…’

10. Get outside yourself

So if you want to up the happiness factor in your own life, what can you do – without trying to chase that ever-evasive butterfly? Pursue God for joy to become your strength (Nehemiah 8:10), says Ritchie, who also says that every Christian should watch humorous TV, see a comedian and cultivate laughter around the dinner table. ‘It’s high time that the Church found its funny bone,’ he says. 

Brown says she is happier than she’s ever been – the result not only of practising gratitude, but also of letting go of perfectionism and embracing vulnerability. ‘I believe that self-worth plays a critical role in happiness. It’s hard for me to be happy when I’m perfecting, pretending, pleasing and proving myself,’ she says. Surely it’s within the safety of relationship with a loving God, and the caring community of the Church, that we have an opportunity to be vulnerable, accept our imperfections and learn how to live for proving and pleasing God instead of ourselves.

Makant echoes this in her advice on how to experience greater happiness. ‘Feelings of happiness come from getting outside of oneself and acting on behalf of others. If you aren’t feeling happy, do something – feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, speak the truth in love, love the unlovable,’ she says. ‘Happiness has little to do with my own feelings about my own feelings and has everything to do with loving God and God’s people.’

What is happiness?

Psychologist Martin Seligman definines happiness three ways

1. Pleasure

What many today would consider ‘happiness’: material and physical pleasures and

2. Engagement

Deeper than pleasure, this is things and activities that require more investment and effort, but are more satisfying, such as relationships, job satisfaction or hobbies

3. Meaning

Deeper still – an attachment to something larger than oneself, or family – and the larger the entity, the more meaning in your life. ‘Most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning’, Seligman says.

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