We hear it said all the time: people just want to be happy. College students want to find a career that makes them happy. Parents want their kids to be happy. Friends advise friends to do what makes them happy. But should happiness be our goal? Is it a right goal for Christians in particular?
What is happiness?
The way we define happiness is important in answering these questions. Many people think of happiness as an emotion or an experience of pleasure or comfort, a feeling of being satisfied physically and emotionally that is both subjective and, because it is based on circumstance, fleeting. But this modern secular view of happiness is not the only possible definition.
Ross Oakes Mueller, Ph.D., professor of psychology, begins his senior capstone course by helping students think about happiness. The course is called
“Pursuing Goodness: The Science of Moral Change.” Students read the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Along with other topics, they consider ways of defining happiness.
“First, we introduce the ‘naive’ or hedonist hypothesis,” Oakes Mueller said. “This is the idea that happiness comes from the outside, from getting what you want.”
A hedonist view of happiness may lead people to pursue pleasure or satisfaction through wealth, sex, or power.
Next the class considers “the Stoic response” to hedonism — “the idea that happiness comes from within.” Believers in this version of happiness say that they don’t need a lot of outside things to be happy. “The idea is not to have what I want but to want what I have,” Oakes Mueller explained.
Finally, the class turns its attention to a type of happiness the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia.
“As opposed to the idea of measuring happiness by subjective well-being, which is a thin definition,” Oakes Mueller said,“eudaimonia is a sense of well-being or satisfaction with life that is bound up with meaning-making and habits of virtue.”
Heather Ross, professor of philosophy at PLNU, also thinks about the ancient Greeks and eudaimonia when she thinks about happiness.
“Their particular notion of happiness, or eudaimonia, is better translated as well-being,” she explained. “It included things like being physically healthy, leading a vibrant and vital family life, a vibrant public life (if you were male), being excellent at your craft, being morally virtuous … It’s the idea of living life as fully and robustly as one can, flourishing like a good healthy oak tree. Those are the metaphors.”
“Eudaimonia is a sense of well-being or satisfaction with life that is bound up with meaning-making and habits of virtue.”
Both Heather Ross and Ross Oakes Mueller, do believe that even eudaimonia isn’t the ultimate goal for Christians. Both would say the pursuit of love for God and neighbor is most important. However, Oakes Mueller points out that being happy and having a positive effect make us more likely to act in loving ways.
“Happiness is not our end goal as Christians, but it makes us more likely to reach out in compassion to others,” he said.“mIt can be an instrumental good toward the ultimate good of love.”
For classical thinkers like Aristotle and Seneca, pursuing eudaimonia meant living ethically and pursuing flourishing and the good life as ultimate ends. David Horner, in his paper “The Pursuit of Happiness: C.S. Lewis’s Eudaimonistic Understanding of Ethics,” argues that Christian thinkers such as Augustine and, later, C.S. Lewis believed in pursuing a eudaimonic version of happiness, but they located the source of that kind of happiness in a relationship with God. Horner quotes Augustine as saying in a sermon: “[God] himself is the fountain of our happiness; he himself is the end of all of our longing.”
Similarly, Psalm 146:5 says: “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God.”
Some Christians prefer to use the word joy for this kind of happiness. Ross prefers the term joy because she believes it is more clearly distinct from viewing happiness as pleasure.
“There is something in the act of love that is joy even if it doesn’t give pleasure — even if it hurts or takes something from you,” she said. “An act of love does not harm me even if it is painful. Even if I give it all, even if I die — that is not a harm for a Christian.”
“There is something in the act of love that is joy — even if it doesn’t give pleasure even if it hurts or takes something from you.”
Should Christians be happy?
Some Christians assume that they must always outwardly act happy because of their salvation or because of biblical calls to be joyful even in suffering. In contrast, others might ask whether it is ever right to be happy when there are people living in poverty, injustices and wars taking place, and sickness and sorrow in the lives of people we love.
Esteban Trujillo, university chaplain and director of chapel programming, thinks about these questions both with a long view of happiness and by considering the fullness of Scripture.
“My understanding of happiness really comes out of this bicultural space that
I live in,” he said. “I speak English and Spanish; I learned to read God’s word in Spanish first. One thing that’s interesting in Scripture is that the word blessed is often used interchangeably with happiness. In Spanish, we often see the words bienaventurados or feliz. Bienaventurados could be translated as well-journeyed. When I know God’s presence is with me, I feel a sense of happiness. We know that the journey has all of its twists and turns and ups and downs. Journeying well doesn’t necessarily mean that emotionally I’m always going to be up here. Doing that journey well means more about faithfulness and trust and obedience.
Even in all that, there is grace. For me, when I hear the word grace, that puts a smile on my face. I’m going to mess up along this journey. It’s not going to be perfect, and it’s not going to be easy, but there is grace for that.”
When it comes to considering the fullness of Scripture, Trujillo points to both the life of Jesus and the Old Testament.
“There is a whole book called Lamentations,” he said. “There are psalms of lament. When the Bible talks about turning our mourning into dancing, that means that there will be mourning; there will be pain. In the life of Jesus, we see points of joy and community, but also Jesus experiences real pain. Jesus weeps when his friend Lazarus dies. Trying to be happy all
the time isn’t living into the fullness of humanity and who we are. I need to trust that God can hold all of me.”
“Trying to be happy all the time isn’t living into the fullness of humanity and who we are.”
Trujillo notes that there is peace in knowing that we can bring our authentic selves to God with all of our emotions — from joy to lament, from thanksgiving to confession. In fact, in addition to thinking of happiness in terms of love and joy, peace is another fruit of the Spirit that helps us understand what happiness can mean for a Christian.
Do we have to choose between happiness and holiness?
In an article for desiringgod.org, Christian author Randy Alcorn writes, “As a young pastor, I preached, as others still do, ‘God calls us to holiness, not happiness.’ I saw Christians pursue what they thought would make them happy, falling headlong into sexual immorality, alcoholism, and materialism. The lure of happiness appeared at odds with holiness … I’m now convinced we were all dead wrong … Indeed, holiness is exactly what secures our happiness. Charles Spurgeon said, ‘Holiness is the royal road to happiness. The death of sin is the life of joy.’”
Like Alcorn, Trujillo doesn’t believe happiness and holiness need to be in contradiction.
“I feel that happiness is a product of how we live into our life of holiness,” he said. He went on to share how Ezekiel 47:1-12 has helped shape his understanding of the relationship between happiness and holiness. In the passage, Ezekiel has a vision of the temple. He sees a drip of water from the temple that moves out into a desolate land. As it does so, life begins to happen. Vegetation grows. Salty seas become fresh. Fish leap from the waters, and the trees bring forth fruit.
“The idea of holiness is that from the place that God’s presence flows and flows through us and among us, life begins to happen,” Trujillo said.
“The idea of holiness is that from the place that God’s presence flows and flows through us and among us, life begins to happen.”
This year’s chapel theme relates to the idea of finding our happiness in God. The theme is “Dwell.” Throughout the year, students will learn about the Lord’s Prayer and prayer in general through chapel. They will consider how prayer helps them dwell with God, who is the source of our joy and peace.
Trujillo says chapel will look at questions such as: “What does it mean for God to dwell in us but also for us to dwell in God? What does it mean to be in residence with God? How does that transform us? What does it mean to find our home in God?”
Finding our dwelling place in God in turn affects how we live among others and treat others.
“The Lord’s Prayer starts by calling God ‘Our Father,’” Trujillo noted. “There is a sense of peace and welcome in that — a joy and a sense of hospitality. That hospitality should be reproduced in our relationships. Opportunities to do that are where joy exists and is cultivated and even restored.”
Is pursing happiness selfish or a way to love others?
Even understanding that our happiness comes from being in relationship with God, we might wonder whether paying attention to our own happiness is a selfish endeavor. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, reflected on that question during her journey, ultimately determining that trying to improve her happiness also improved the lives of her loved ones. She was kinder, more thoughtful, and more gracious toward others when she sought to cultivate her own happiness.
“The difference was something like 60-70% stopping to help versus 10%,” Oakes Mueller said. “Anxiety, or negative affect, narrows our focus and makes it more likely for us to fall into our routines and habits. Positive affect widens our perspective, makes us more creative, more aware of our environment. In this study, stress funneled out the other.”
Oakes Mueller believes that for the Christian, our “deepest, most profound sense of flourishing is when we are engaged in loving or growing in our capacity to love, embedded in a context of grace.” When we are happier, we are more likely to show love, which gives us the greatest fulfillment because it is in obedience to God.
For Heather Ross, love is also key — much more key than happiness. She sees love as the better focus for Christians.
“The calling for every Christian is to follow God to those loved by God,” she said. “You are to give your life to whoever is in your path. They are your neighbor … There is this idea of unconditional and radical love of one’s neighbor, and one’s neighbor is defined as any person you meet. In otherwords, everyone is your neighbor.”
“The calling for every Christian is to follow God to those loved by God. You are to give your life to whoever is in your path.”
Ross points out that loving people doesn’t always feel good, and some relationships can be very painful. In these situations, our Christian duty to love may not produce any feelings of happiness or sense of well-being.
“I am compelled by God to love [my neighbor], and they demand my time and energy,” she said. “They take me from the things that give me pleasure. Throughout life, there are good times with people and times that are not great. Love is the goal of the Christian, but I’m not sure if it yields happiness.”
So, does God want us to be happy? People, accomplishments, and circumstances can provide us with temporary feelings of happiness. But an abiding sense of peace, love, and joy comes from God. Seeking our happiness in God can then lead us to treat others more lovingly — not because they make us happy but because God does.
Alcorn concludes his article with this: “Our message to the world should not be ‘Don’t seek happiness,’ but ‘You’ll find in Jesus the happiness you have always been seeking.’”