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The Foundation of Happiness

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In this article, Ann Kroeker considers the foundation of happiness in the series Live Happy. The pursuit of happiness will yield only what the human craves when we drop the pursuit of happiness in favor of the pursuit of God.

The United Nations proclaimed each March 20 to be International Day of Happiness, because “happiness and well-being” are “universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.” It’s certainly a foundational idea in the United States, as Thomas Jefferson penned the idea that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Meaning of Happiness

What does “happiness” mean? And how do we attain or acquire it?

An article in FirstThings.com attempts to clarify what the Founding Fathers meant by that phrase. “The right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ affirmed in the Declaration of Independence is taken these days to affirm a right to chase after whatever makes one subjectively happy.” The article continues, “‘Happiness’ in the public discourse of the time often did not simply refer to a subjective emotional state. It meant prosperity or, perhaps better, well-being in the broader sense. It included the right to meet physical needs, but it also included a significant moral and religious dimension.”

So that early definition of happiness must have been more than “heel-kicking, cocktail-umbrella joie de vivre,” as Michael Booth joked in his Atlantic essay “The Danish Don’t Have the Secret to Happiness.” Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark, frequently score high as a country on happiness surveys. Their results, he says, assume happiness means something far simpler than heel-kicking joie de vivre; that is, they must consider happiness something more like “being contented with one’s lot.”

Contentment often comes from simple things. Henry Ward Beecher is credited as saying, “The art of being happy lies in the power of extracting happiness from common things.” Perhaps that’s the Danish secret?

A Danish friend of the author posited: “We always come top of those surveys because they ask us at the beginning of the year what our expectations are.… Then they ask us at the end of the year whether those expectations were met. And because our expectations are so extremely low at the beginning of the year, they tend to get met more easily.”

Booth concludes, “Happiness has never been an ‘inalienable right’ in Denmark, so it could be that the Danes appreciate it all the more when it manifests itself. Perhaps Danish happiness is not really happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with your lot, low-level needs being met, higher expectations being kept in check.”

The Connection between Religion and Personal Happiness

Scandinavian countries tend not to draw their happiness from religion, whereas new research in the United States “has found a strong correlation between religion and personal happiness." The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture “surveyed over 15,000 Americans and found that people attending a religious service on a weekly basis are nearly twice as likely to say they’re ‘very happy’ than those who don’t attend at all.”

The report suggests that one reason religion and happiness are related is relationships: “a network of friends and fellow congregants, sharing common purposes and motivations.” Church attendance predicted higher life satisfaction than simply aligning with a particular group, perhaps because of the face-to-face contact with others. Previous studies produced similar results. “One study suggested that it is not the size of the network, but the sense of belonging to a group of like-minded people that results in the increased levels of happiness.”

A High Calling Daily Reflection, “What Makes Us Truly Happy,” considers Psalm 144, in which “David begins by noting that those who are blessed with fine children, ample food, and physical safety are happy. Surely, those of us who have experienced any or all of these blessings can affirm David's insight … then he goes a step further, adding, ‘Joyful indeed are those whose God is the LORD’ (144:15) … he is recognizing that ultimate happiness entails more than earthly blessings. It is a result of knowing the one true God.”

C. S. Lewis on Happiness

Bill Muehlenberg draws from C. S. Lewis’ writings to explore this idea of happiness rooted in knowing God in his article “C. S. Lewis on Real Happiness and Real Christianity.” When considering the question “Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?” Lewis offered a reply that seems anti-Christianity:

While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best. I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know … If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

Despite Lewis’ suggestion that comfortable happiness won’t come from Christianity, he explains in Mere Christianity what happens when we seek happiness apart from God:

The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact … What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could … invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

Lewis continues, “God made us … He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Muehlenberg cites the very last paragraph of Mere Christianity:

Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

That advice suggests that the pursuit of happiness will only yield what the human craves when we drop the pursuit of happiness in favor of the pursuit of God. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:31).

The Secret of a Happy Life

This aligns with advice from Hannah Whitall Smith, who wrote The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life:

Accept His will in the trial, whatever it may be, and hide yourself in His arms of love. Say, “Thy will be done; Thy will be done!” over and over. Shut out every other thought but the one thought of submission to His will and of trust in His love … the soul itself, in this natural and simple way, will acquire such a holy habit of “abiding in Christ” that at last His presence will become the most real thing in life to our consciousness, and an habitual, silent, and secret conversation with Him will be carried on that will yield a continual joy.

What, then, was Smith’s secret of a happy life? Abiding in Christ—actively seeking and humbly accepting God’s will, and doing everything for God’s glory. After all, as Jesus Himself says in John 15:4-5, abiding in Christ we bear fruit, and apart from Him, we can do nothing.

Smith wrote:

Offer each moment of thy living and each act of thy doing to God, and say to Him continually, “Lord, I am doing this in Thee and for Thy glory. Thou art my strength, and my wisdom, and my all-sufficient supply for every need. I depend only upon Thee.” Refuse utterly to live for a single moment or to perform a single act apart from Him. Persist in this until it becomes the established habit of thy soul. And sooner or later thou shalt surely know the longings of thy soul satisfied in the abiding presence of Christ, thy indwelling Life.

As Smith and Lewis conclude, Jesus Christ himself is the foundation of our happiness. Our Savior commands us to start with first things first: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).

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