On the Pursuit of Happiness

One of the things I miss most about the younger, smaller Trinity of yesterday is the conversations we'd have in the carpool line and on the playground. Seems like every time I'd write a Parent News article I'd end up talking about it with some parent or teacher. Not anymore.

There are, of course, many possible explanations for this change. It's likely that people aren't reading them; or people are tired of hearing me drone on about the same things year after year; or I've grown really banal in my maturity. But on the off chance that its a growth thing, I'm going to post this week's Parent News article and see if anyone wants to talk about it. If not on the playground, maybe in cyberspace.

On the Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness gets a bad rap in Christian circles. John Piper got blasted years ago when he dared to write a book (Desiring God) whose premise was that Christians might want to pay more attention that venerably blissful state. No matter how many times he quoted C.S. Lewis or Jonathan Edwards, he still got in trouble. My first draft of All Things Well, the vision statement for Trinity’s Upper School, made much of the idea of happiness. Once I realized how much explaining I would have to do to silence my critics (not to mention winning them over), I excised the noun and filed it away for another day.

Today is that day. I’m for happiness. I think it has a lot to recommend it.

The unique status of happiness as a good can be seen by performing a little experiment. Finish this sentence: “I want ____________ because ________________. Almost any other good you put into the first blank needs something also in the second blank. Try “wealth.” Or even “health.” Or “knowledge.” Somebody will need an explanation, a justification. But try “happiness.” You don’t have to fill in the second blank. You can say, “I want to be happy” and most folks will hear you, understand, and leave you alone. Happiness does not need a marketing plan or an attorney.

But wait: Surely it’s more complicated than just getting what we want. Is the playboy or the ruthless tycoon really happy? Augustine (who thought not) put it nicely: “Happy is the man who, in the course of his life, has everything he desires, provided he desires nothing amiss.” Ah, yes! There’s the rub. The truly happy have desires in line with the way things really are, with the true goods, for instance, the truly happy would care more for knowledge than for riches, and would see wealth as a means to other, better ends and not an end in itself.

Happiness really depends on two things: something inside us (right desires) and good fortune (e.g., health and wealth enough to enjoy those right desires). Only one of those can we really control: what’s inside. We can, by education and true religion, shape our aims and our habits such that we want what we ought to want. But we can’t really control what’s outside us. The Declaration of Independence imagines a life where the pursuit of happiness is everyone’s right. But not even the Founding Fathers could guarantee happiness. We are all of us subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from time to time. If we think not, the stock market and the CAT scan will disabuse us.

I think the Beatitudes have a lot to teach us here. “Happy is the one who. . . .” The things Jesus tells us about are things inside us, attitudes of humility and purity and righteousness. And he is clear that these don’t come to those that try harder. Happiness comes to those who trust God, who stop trusting themselves. It’s sort of like when you see someone whom you know well but can’t remember their name. The harder you try, the worse it gets. Happiness is like that. The harder you try to be happy, the less happy you’ll be. But if you’ll just go on and do something else and relax you can probably remember that person’s name like falling off a log. And if we’ll just go with God, trust him, and do what he says, we’ll find that we will be happy to boot. Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added to you. Seek all these things and you’ll miss them—and the kingdom.

There’s also that bothersome part about bad fortune. “Blessed are you when men curse you and persecute you and. . . .” It seems that Jesus is telling us that God will somehow take care of the stuff on the outside which we can’t control just as much as he will the stuff on the inside we can.

I’m glad that others nixed my early version of All Things Well. Happiness takes a lot of explaining, especially in a culture which is all too glad to leave the last clause off Augustine’s dictum. But I submit that it is still a serviceable concept and that we ignore it at our peril. Our students know all about it. If sociologist Christian Smith is right about American teenage religion, then one of the first questions any teenager is likely to ask about any proposal for the good life is, “Will it make me happy?”

We can lament this as self-centered therapeutic narcissism. Or we can give this young generation our help and guidance and prayers, to make sure that their desires are not amiss; and to help them know what to do about the things they can’t do anything about. In short, to teach them how to be happy, which is an educational goal with a long, long tradition:

Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
Or stand in the way of sinners
Or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in season
And whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers. Psalm 1


Unknown said…

I somehow overlooked your "profile" and your other blog that reflects all things Augustine. A great way to have someone from 354 A.D. communicate with us here in the 21st century. Thanks for doing that. Clever!


Stay the course with this blog. Soon it will develop a larger following than just your friend from Apple and your daughter. Thanks for the column on the pursuit of happiness. We are all prone to pursue that and yet you grounded your column in God's word which is really the only place to find a true definition of a happiness that is sustainable in spite of the difficulties of life. There is something here now in this present age for us that allows us to know a God centered contentment -- it is not meant just to point us to eternity and some future hope.


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