The Pursuit of Happiness
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 16 Rejoice evermore. 17 Pray without ceasing. 18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is a well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence. The phrase gives examples of the various “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says all human beings have been given by their Creator and for the protection of which they institute governments.
We as humans have latched on to and taken hold of this idea to such an extent that we now believe the pursuit of happiness to be our primary reason for being. We have convinced ourselves that it is our right and, in fact, our duty, to devote our time and energy to those things which make us happiest. Achieving happiness, whether we measure it by our own emotions, the praise of others, or the number of things we amass, is the mark of success in the race of life.
The Latest Fad
Dozens – even hundreds – of books are devoted to the subject. Newspapers, magazines and blogs devote swathes of rainforest to sharing the secrets of happiness. Everything from diet to habits to attitudes to vocation comes under the microscope, ready to be analysed and assessed for its ability to increase or diminish our perceived happiness. Anything less than bliss must be cast aside as rubbish, discarded for its obvious lack of value in the quest for personal pleasure.
A Fad with Flaws
A rational observer will soon see some key flaws in this approach.
From a secular point of view, hard work and easy amusement tend to be at odds with one another. If easy amusement is the ultimate goal in life, it stands to reason that hard work has no value, and in fact detracts from this goal. As such, it ought to be eschewed.
From a spiritual point of view, not only are the quiet disciplines of a life ordered after God’s precepts not immediately obvious as pathways to plain pleasure; the reminders of our sinful nature throughout God’s Word and godly teaching are sure-fire mood killers, and add no profit to a life focused on so-called happiness. Thus, glorifying God and pursuing pleasure are at odds.
Modern Science Shows the Way – or Does It?
A recent edition of the popular modern magazine, Psychologies, draws attention to this phenomenon only too well. This magazine specialises in bringing the very latest advances and discoveries in the world of mental health research to the public, to enable us to benefit from the fast-growing body of knowledge on the subject, and essentially begin to heal ourselves.
This particular issue dedicated three separate articles to the subject of finding happiness, and offered practical advice on how to achieve this goal.
Think Happy Thoughts
The first article related current research showing that, typically, lottery winners find that their happiness peaks briefly after their win, then dips to pre-winning levels, if not lower. In fact, many lottery winners become so depressed, they need to be hospitalised, and some even commit (or attempt) suicide. Giant windfalls provide short-lived mood enhancers, the writer explained. However, the simple act of actively noticing and enjoying the beauty available everywhere, in a focused and intentional way every day, would gradually provide a sustained lift in mood that would not only lead to elevated levels of personal happiness, but would also furnish the person with a reserve of inner strength which would help him through the harder times when they arise (as they will). The writer suggested the company of good friends, stimulating conversation, excellent literature, beautiful sunsets, scenic walks and so forth as potential subjects to enjoy and ponder.
Find Your Happy Place
Another article explained that regular reflection was the pathway to happiness. Taking time every day, the writer said, to “get away from it all”, and to calm and order your thoughts, would make you more disciplined, more focused, calmer on the inside, and, as a result, happier. Suggestions included yoga and meditation, among others, as ways to take your mind to a more peaceful place.
An Attitude of Gratitude
A third article was in fact a letter of appreciation written to the letter. The writer explained that she had become very discontent with her life, particularly her work. She said that she’d been battling bitterness and depression for some time, when her niece gave her a copy of Psychologies to help her get perspective. One of the articles she’d read reported a study that showed that people who spent their days actively finding things to be genuinely grateful for reported increased happiness, better health, and faster career growth. They tended to be more well-liked by colleagues, superiors and their families, and found that, over time, the quality of their lives improved. The writer of the letter said that she had decided to give this approach “a go”, and had found that it had already begun to have the desirable effects described in the article.
God’s Had the Answers All Along
In each case, the magazine was reporting the most current research on the subject, sharing with us the most-recently discovered ways to pursue personal happiness.
The funny thing is that God has been saying these things for thousands of years.
In Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul exhorts us with the following:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
In other words: actively seek the good, true, pure things God has put in your life, and use your brain to consider those, instead of miring it in the bog of worry and stress we seem determined to infest.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul makes it very simple indeed:
Pray without ceasing.
In other words: don’t give up. Take the time all the time to get your mind quiet and focused. Give your problems to God and await His answers in faith.
This chapter goes on to say, in verse 18,
In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
In other words: be thankful. As the writer in Psychologies pointed out, an attitude of gratitude takes you places. Paul is not saying for everything give thanks, although we can give thanks for every trial when we choose to see God using that trial to mould us into something useful for Him. But Paul says in everything give thanks. Perhaps your trial is too hard to allow you to be thankful for it. But there are thousands of things in each life for which we can be thankful. And we should.
And to make it abundantly clear, in verse 16 Paul says this potent phrase:
Now we get to the heart of the matter – and it is a heart matter. He says “rejoice ever more”, then goes on to say, “pray, give thanks, stay away from bad things and focus on the good.” And the result surpasses temporary happiness. The result is joy – sustained, deep, unshakeable joy not dependant on circumstances, relationships, events, health or anything other than the faithfulness of our Saviour.
God knows the recipe, and He graciously shared it with us over 2000 years ago. Scientists think they have finally unlocked the secrets of the highest purpose in man’s life. But they are wrong on two counts:
One is that happiness is not the result of happy thoughts, an attitude of gratitude, or a regular brain drain in meditation. These are second hand substitutes that lack depth, effectiveness and long-term power. The real path to what we believe we want, happiness, is prayer, focusing on the good God has given us, and thanking Him in every circumstance.
More important, however, is that the pursuit of happiness is NOT the point of our existence. The glory of God is. We cannot glorify God, pray without ceasing, thank God even in the face of trials, or reflect on His goodness, if we don’t know Him personally, and experience His grace at work in us regularly. Have you met this Jesus, and do you know Him as your Saviour?