No matter our goals, our hopes and dreams for our relationships, careers, and families, we all ultimately desire one thing in life — to be happy. Many philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers, from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to Martin Seligman, have thought and taught about our constant desire to pursue happiness.
It seems obvious, yet since this pursuit for happiness anchors every decision we make, it’s incredibly important to clarify what we actually mean when we use the term “happiness,” and if all definitions have equal value. To some, happiness is the acquiring of wealth, fame, and luxury; to others, it’s the pursuit of a worthwhile and esteemed career; and to others, it’s to love God and neighbor. While all of these definitions reflect certain aspects of human truths about flourishing and well-being, they must be understood in right relation to each other. Otherwise, and we see this in certain instances within our culture, the pursuit for lasting happiness results in frustration, depression, and, well, unhappiness.
How should we define and understand what happiness looks like? What are some of the cultural pitfalls of the pursuit of happiness that we need to be aware of? And how can we apply what we know about the Christian faith and recent psychological findings to become happier?
The Pursuit of Modern Happiness
An article in Forbes, “Millennial Generation’s Non-Negotiables: Money, Fame And Image,” reveals a noteworthy finding about younger generations, drawn from a study done on how much weight each generation attributes to certain values:
“The younger generations were, on average, less interested in ‘intrinsic’ goals and more interested in ‘extrinsic’ ones — especially the millennials. They viewed ‘money, fame, and image’ as being among the more important life-goals, whereas they saw aspirations ‘concerned with self-acceptance, affiliation, and community as less important.’”
What’s interesting is that these responses don’t constitute the idealistic pursuits of young people of all generations — as if there is a phase in everyone’s life when extrinsic goals are more important than intrinsic ones. They do, instead, represent the views of modern young people. Generations in the past didn’t rank such values so highly. The findings reveal a deeper belief about what will make many young people happy in this country.
Although it isn’t always overt, there is a definite equating of a wealthy, luxurious, and famous lifestyle with happiness, which we see in our advertising, entertainment, and news. Additionally, we are infatuated with achieving happiness, evidenced by the countless number of books, podcasts, television shows, and articles that claim to unlock the mystery of happiness. There are books that belabor the need to work hard toward a lucrative career, to cut up ours days into productive time slots for optimal success, and to exercise, do yoga, and ingest an assortment of strange supplements every morning to achieve maximum flourishing. However, if understood in this sense, happiness becomes the mere increasing of pleasure and diminishing of suffering. We are happy because we are full, entertained, or exhilarated. The satisfaction of these desires remain fine in and of themselves, and we do need some of these baser levels of happiness — safety, food, healthy relationships, the healthy esteem of others, etc. — to flourish, but the question becomes whether these desires are being properly weighed.
If understood in this sense, happiness becomes the mere increasing of pleasure and diminishing of suffering. We are happy because we are full, entertained, or exhilarated.
Once we have these basic needs met, we don’t become happier with the more we accrue. To illuminate this point, in Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, he references surveys conducted to determine how satisfied people are with their lives. The surveys indicated that that Forbes magazine’s richest Americans, the Pennsylvania Amish, and the Inughuit (Inuit people in northern Greenland) shared the same exact levels of satisfaction, despite the first group having vastly more wealth, financial security, and reputation.
In David Brooks book, The Road to Character, he explains that our society — from our parents’ advice to what we’re taught in school — focuses on helping us get good jobs, augment our resumes, and successfully navigate a world that relies on appearance, reputation, honor, and accomplishments. While there is something necessary about building these skills to a healthy degree, this myopic focus often eschews any focus on our inner life. This inner life involves the cultivation of what Brooks refers to as the “eulogy virtues”: the ones that exist at the core of our being, like kindness, bravery, honesty, and faithfulness. In the words of Brooks, an inordinate focus on the resume virtues turn us into a “shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and who turns everything into a game.”
The Danger of the “Lesser” Happiness
We are constantly bombarded with advertising that promises that if we purchase this or that particular item or service that we’ll be happy. The problem with this is that after the initial high of acquiring whatever it is that we have been diligently seeking — that new iPhone, promotion at work, trip to Hawaii — we inevitably fall back to our prior feelings of happiness. We all know the experience from childhood, when after waiting months to receive the toy of our dreams on Christmas morning, within a matter of weeks, it’s cast aside with the rest of our old toys, untouched. Ross Oakes Mueller, Ph.D., PLNU professor of psychology, explains that there is a physiological reason for this familiar human experience.
“It turns out there are neurological reasons why hedonic pleasure doesn’t tend to bring a larger aggregate amount of pleasure in life,” Oakes Mueller shared. “Because we tend to be far more sensitive to changes in our conditions, than to the absolute goodness of our present situation. Once we have experienced the thrill of noticing a positive change, we tend to adapt back to our status quo, or set levels of happiness, after some time.”
Oakes Mueller used the phrase “hedonic treadmill” to refer to the phenomenon of constantly looking to achieve some kind of pleasurable feeling through a good or accomplishment, only to find out that once we acquire it, we quickly begin searching for some new object that holds out the promise of lasting happiness. Oakes Mueller emphasized this reality with a shocking example.
“We tend to imagine that we would be immensely happy if we won the lottery. But the self-report data that we have on both lottery winners and those who have suffered spinal cord injuries suggests that, after about a year, both groups of people tend to settle right back to their baseline levels of happiness,” Oakes Mueller said.
This means that no matter what we acquire, if we work to only fulfill these lower levels of happiness that involve pleasure and reputation, we will never become satisfied with our lives. While we may be able to intuit that there is more to life that the acquisition of material goods, fame, and power, there are empirically-proven reasons for why focusing on — and even acquiring — these levels of happiness can lead ultimately to unhappiness if not properly ordered. Seligman writes about how, despite an improvement in living conditions and an overall increase in wealth in the world, we are worse off in other ways. Seligman writes:
“The prevalence of depression among young people is shockingly high worldwide. By some estimates, depression is about ten times more common now than it was fifty years ago… There is much more depression affecting those much younger, and average national happiness — which has been measured competently for a half century — has not remotely kept up with how much better the objective world has become (average house doubled from 1,200 to 2,500 square feet, one out of five children [acquired] post-high school education, now one out of two, etc.).”
This means that no matter what we acquire, if we work to only fulfill these lower levels of happiness that involve pleasure and reputation, we will never become satisfied with our lives.
Working Toward Lasting Happiness
We are spiritual beings endowed with a soul and transcendent desires: a yearning for truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and being. We can spend our lives trying to fulfill our lower desires, but this will keep us incomplete, as we will not fulfill the deep, pervasive desires of our heart. We have a capacity for empathy and a conscience that enjoins us to build a better world; and we have a desire to be united with the source of perfect love: God. If we don’t make these desires — to love others and God — our focus, and allow our lower desires to aid these primary ones accordingly, then we become unhappy. This isn’t the result of an arbitrary morality that punishes us with unhappiness for not following certain rules. Rather, it speaks to the spiritual laws of the universe: our happiness can’t result in anything but the right ordering of our hearts and minds to God, just like we can’t satisfy our hunger and thirst with anything other than real food and drink.
If we don’t make these desires — to love others and God — our focus, and allow our lower desires to aid these primary ones accordingly, then we end up unhappy.
While this represents a Christian worldview of human well-being, there are a number of empirical reasons why this is true. Oakes Mueller and PLNU psychology professor, Michael Leffel, Ph.D., have developed an acronym to describe what makes human beings thrive. They call it “TRAVELS.”
The “T” stands for “thriving,” or what might be understood as positive emotions (or “Happiness” as “Subjective Well-Being”). Research strongly suggests that that when we feel safe and secure, well-fed and healthy, we are much more inclined to experience positive emotions (for obvious reasons). In turn, such positive emotions make us more likely to act compassionately toward others. To this end, we can breed positive feelings through certain behaviors, such as practicing thankfulness, forgiveness, and mindfulness.
The “R” stands for relationships. Relationships constitute a major aspect of happiness. In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, psychiatrists observed 724 men of varying social classes and backgrounds — from very poor to very well-off — over the course of 75 years. Drawing upon data from this incredibly comprehensive study, Robert Waldinger, in the TEDx Talk, “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” explains that the single most important message of the study was that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” What the study revealed was, despite the varying hardships and blessings in life, that strong relationships were the one consistent attribute that all of the happy people in the study shared.
The “A” stands for “Arête,” a Greek term which refers to moral virtue or excellence. This dimension points toward our need to love something greater than ourselves, opening up ourselves to others and God in an aspirational way of living.
“It constitutes the practices and intentional time devoted to cultivating a craft. We would suggest that, in the Christian tradition, such a craft should be directed toward compassion and Generative Care, the craft of love,” Oakes Mueller explained. “It has to do with the idea of finding a way that I can be generative, in other words, using my gifts and talents to produce something for someone else.”
In a book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes about his experience at a Nazi concentration camp, and how despite unimaginable suffering, it was those who had a reason outside of themselves to live — to be united with a spouse or to finish some great work for humanity — who were able to survive. Frankl wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
The “VE” stands for ‘“vital engagement.” This relates to another term known as “flow,” which is a state we achieve when we are engaged in an activity that is interesting, challenging, and meaningful to us. Whether that’s writing a book, teaching a class, building a table, solving a business problem, or playing the piano, in these moments we lose our sense of time and self. When we do this toward some meaningful end, such as to help or inspire others, such instances of flow can bring us a deep sense of satisfaction.
Finally, the “LS” stands for “loving spirituality,” which relates to our human desire for transcendent truth, beauty, and goodness, or in other words, for a relationship with God. Through prayer, a community with others who share similar beliefs, and faith in God, our deep desires for lasting meaning and perfect love are fulfilled.
Happiness in Practice
With that said, how do we go about implementing these ways of being in order to achieve greater levels of happiness?
While there are certain factors that we can’t control, such as our genetic disposition toward happiness and basic living circumstances (access to food, water, and other basic needs), which, according to Oakes Mueller, collectively make up around 60 percent of our set happiness point, the remainder of our daily happiness is influenced by our volitional actions.
These have to do with the virtues, which ground the Christian way of life. By actively working to implement practices related to compassion, empathy, mindfulness, generosity, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, self-compassion, gratitude, and others, we can build habits that improve our sense of pervasive and lasting happiness. In other words, much of our happiness is not tethered to external, uncontrollable circumstances, but our own willingness to do good.
“One way to do this is mindfulness meditation, to be aware of what I’m feeling, of what’s going on around me, without acting compulsively on those feelings.” Oakes Mueller suggested that the more mindful we are, the less likely we are to act rashly based on emotions, and the more we free ourselves up to choose for ourselves the right path, whether that’s in a conversation with a loved one or dealing with a work-related issue.
“A second way to increase our happiness is to increase our cognitive and emotional capacities for empathy, which involves both our ability to perspective-take and our ability to emotionally ‘resonate’ with the emotions of others.” Oakes Mueller explained that if we take time to actively be aware of others’ sufferings and perspectives, we’re better able to understand them, see them as our neighbor, and then act compassionately toward them.
By actively working to implement practices related to compassion, empathy, mindfulness, generosity, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, self-compassion, gratitude, and others, we can build habits that improve our sense of pervasive and lasting happiness.
“Gratitude is another virtue that contributes to our capacity to love. There are a number of ways to practice this virtue, whether that’s writing down both the small and monotonous details of your life for which you are grateful or the larger life issues for which you are profoundly grateful, writing letters to those who have helped you, composing a gratitude journal, [or] pausing for a moment with a single object and imagining all of the people involved throughout the history of time who have contributed to making the object exist for your benefit,” Oakes Mueller shared, before pointing finally to another way to sharpen virtues that promote happiness: forgiveness.
“In addition to being intrinsically valuable, the process of forgiving others can help with feelings of well-being.” Oakes Mueller said. “By forgiving others as Christians we are caring for another in a generative and merciful way.”
As it turns out, recent empirical findings only affirm what Christianity has echoed for thousands of years: a life of happiness and joy is contingent upon living a virtuous life, prayer, and, especially, involvement in a close-knit and caring community. Research suggests that, perhaps even more important than mere religious belief is the role that faith communities play in shaping virtuous persons.
“There is a tremendous amount of literature that suggests that people engaged in communities of faith tend to, on average, have higher levels of life satisfaction, report greater levels of empathy, and demonstrate higher levels of charitable giving,” Oakes Mueller said. “In other words, a church community brings with it resources and relationships (social capital) in addition to providing our lives with spiritual meaning.”