How do you respond when someone asks: “How are you”? With a slight shrug and an unconvincing “Fine”? What else could you say, when you are not convinced that your daily life adds up to anything more than that?
Sure, you have also had some moments when you uttered an honest “Very good,” which added flavour to your life. But the reality is that, as with most of us, your happiness comes and goes as if blown by the fickle winds of destiny. Because it has no deep roots, the wind carries it like a leaf. You can’t rely on it being there tomorrow, let alone for the rest of your life.
Our happiness, like our entire existence on earth, seems to adhere to the Goldilocks principle. Everything has to be “just right” for us to be happy. If something isn’t right, it’s not good anymore. And there’s almost always something that’s not right. Sometimes we don’t get what we want and we’re unhappy, and other times we do get what we want and we’re still not really happy, because we ask for perfection from an imperfect world. And some of us are happy only when we’re unhappy. If we don’t have something to complain about, we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
Since Augustine wrote, 1600 years ago, that “every man, whatsoever his condition, desires to be happy,” until the remark of the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, 1300 years later, that all people “seek happiness. This is without exception,” right up to this day, when we post our edited pictures of a perfect life on Facebook and Instagram, happiness has remained the most sought after treasure, and the most unstable emotion.
Many ways, few results
Human happiness is not a cultural value that belongs to a certain era. On the contrary, we could say that human history is strewn with this inevitable constant, namely the desire to live and to live well. Whatever motivates people—whether in the decision to start wars, or to make peace, in the decision to have a monogamous relationship, or to lead a promiscuous lifestyle, in the decision to follow a religion, or to reject religion altogether—is intimately related to the need for a happy ending.
The maps that promise to lead us to happiness, the ultimate treasure, are as many as the stars in the sky, and as complicated as the way to them. “The different answers to these questions provide core-level insight into differences in the beliefs and practices of the various religions of the world. Answers vary from the belief that human flourishing is found in being unaffected by the world, or being unaffected by false beliefs that there even is a god, to being your best person now by focusing on positive thinking, to embracing the suffering and difficulty God has for us, to not looking for human flourishing now but later, to living a life of serenity through achieving levels of greater consciousness, peace, and self-enlightenment, to becoming well-adjusted to our environment and relationships, to pursuing a life of practical wisdom and virtue.” These are just a few of the examples listed by theology professor Jonathan Pennington in A Biblical Theology of Human Flourishing.
If we were to reduce all these options to some parent categories, it would mean going back to the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in which the Stoics and Epicureans promoted opposing styles of achieving the spiritual fulfilment and inner happiness we all desire. The Stoics believed in truth and virtue and exercised mental discipline in order to overcome their emotions and thus be able to rise above the hardships of life. However, there was, in fact, no joy in this, “pessimistic in spirit and its outlook upon life… dark and foreboding,” explains theologian Randy Alcorn in his book Happiness. On the other hand, the Epicureans held that happiness derives precisely from cultivating passion for the pleasures of life. According to Epicurus, religion could not offer any happiness, because only the gods could live a happy and carefree life, so it was the philosophers’ job to free people from the terrors and degradations of religion, so that they could also eventually find happiness in life.
With the replacement of polytheism with monotheistic Christianity, another vision of human happiness emerged. Augustine, perhaps the most influential Christian theologian up to Martin Luther, argued, based on the Scriptures, that people cannot prosper and be truly happy unless they focus their lives on the only source of good, truth, and beauty, which is God Himself. The supreme good for people, which comes with happiness, lies in the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour, Augustine argued.
Moving towards the Enlightenment, we find a reorientation of human thought from God and the transcendent, to people and humanism. One effect of this reorientation is that human happiness is completely separated from the idea that there could be something superior to people to be studied, glorified, or loved. The individual is the supreme thing to be studied, glorified, and loved. The Enlightenment, however, retains the moral obligation to love your neighbour, understanding that there is no individual prosperity in the absence of collective prosperity. An extreme version of this thinking was Marx’s vision of communist society, in which prosperity and happiness are obtained by redistributing wealth, says Jonathan Pennington.
In the last shift in ideology on the subject, that of the end of the twentieth century, human happiness and prosperity came to be understood as “the individual’s experiential satisfaction,” writes Pennington. This means that there is no consensus on what happiness means or how it should be sought, but happiness is something that everyone has seen for themselves and has been satisfied with. Notice the process we went through: “Having lost earlier reference to ‘something higher which humans should reverence or love’, it now lost reference to universal solidarity, as well. What remained was concern for the self and the desire for the experience of satisfaction… [Other humans still matter but] they matter mainly in that they serve an individual’s experience of satisfaction,” explains theologian Miroslav Volf. Is modern thinking better than the thinking that preceded it?
Happiness, an unresolved issue
We can say without a doubt that the modern age has solved many problems for us. For most of us, life is longer and more comfortable. With the help of technology, we are no longer enslaved to the vagaries of the weather, the lack of information, the inability to express ourselves publicly or to hold to account those who lead us, and we enjoy access to more and more varied goods and services that by far surpass the coverage of basic needs.
Still, we can say just as unequivocally that the modern age has failed to solve the problem of happiness. On the contrary, now we are more aware than ever of the lack of happiness in our lives. For all we know, there have been no other historical periods where chronic unhappiness came to be the first cause of disability around the world. Defined by the World Health Organization as a “persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that are normally enjoyed, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities for at least two weeks,” depression is currently one of the most common diseases worldwide, with more than 320 million people affected. In its most serious forms, depression can lead to suicide, which is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29.
Statistics show that as time has gone on, this state of affairs has only worsened. Over the past decade, cases of depression have increased by 18%, according to the WHO. Recent parallel studies in the United States by the Gallup Research Institute, and in the United Kingdom by the Prince’s Trust, founded by Prince Charles, show that perceptions of life are darker now than they were during the 2008 financial crisis, although both the American and British economies are enjoying a fairly steady upward trajectory.
In 2009, 15 US states showed a decline in well-being due to financial concerns. In 2017, the total score of the Welfare Index was even lower than in 2009, to the surprise of the researchers. All American states saw this trend. This time, however, psychological and emotional factors dominated, with Americans confessing that they are not fulfilled in either their relationships or at work, as diagnoses of depression only increased in the United States. On the other side of the Atlantic, since this study was first commissioned in 2009, “young people’s happiness across every single area of their lives has never been lower.” Three out of five respondents said they always feel stressed because of work and money, half of them admitted that they had experienced a mental problem, while one in four confessed that they felt “hopeless.”
Why are people unhappy? “For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king?” Blaise Pascal wondered. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world,” writes C. S. Lewis in the book Mere Christianity. In other words, because we were created for greatness, the superficiality of the world is unsatisfactory. Why are so many people unhappy today? We’re not sure. Science is still researching the causes, chemistry, and manifestations of depression. But if we look at the social progress of humanity as it unfolds alongside the ideological progress of happiness, we might see that our increasing distance from the idea that our happiness is linked in some way to a God we should know, glorify, and love, follows with our increasing distance from happiness, and the deepening of our depression.
Look for something more
The fact that we have disconnected our happiness and well-being from the happiness and well-being of those around us—reducing their importance to the role they could play in ensuring our own satisfying experiences—does not seem to have benefitted anyone. This strategy is against nature. “Our brains are actually wired to serve others. When we give charitable money and service to others, our brain releases several stress hormones which elevate our mood and cause us to feel happy. Serving and giving help to others makes us happier, healthier, more prosperous, and therefore greatly blessed and more successful than non-givers,” said researcher Arthur Brooks in a forum on the subject.
Many studies show that giving is more important than receiving in terms of happiness level, but it must come from the heart. People who volunteer for the happiness of others live longer, while those who volunteer for personal satisfaction have the same mortality rate as those who do not volunteer at all, warns a study published in 2012 in the journal Health Psychology. “If we don’t grasp this, we’ll make the fatal mistake of thinking that self-service makes us happy… pouring ourselves out for the good of others brings happiness,” according to the report The Altruism Paradox, which concludes with the biblical advice in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The conclusion of much scientific research is that happiness can never be found directly. Happiness is a by-product of altruism and the primordial pursuit of the happiness of others. It may sound strange, but studies confirm what the Bible has been preaching for more than 2000 years. It is not those who seek blessings who are blessed, but “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is why the longest-running study of human well-being, started by Harvard University more than 75 years ago and continuing to this day, warns that “the people who don’t learn to love early pay a high price”—that is, with their own happiness.
The reality is that both modern research on the subject and biblical teachings throw the ball into the court of the seeker of happiness. In other words, happiness is not so much related to external circumstances, which contribute only 10%. It has more to do with genetic inheritance and temperament (50%) and our choices, behaviours, and thoughts (40%), as one of the most important voices in the field, Sonja Lyubomirsky, writes in her book on how to achieve happiness. We could say that happiness is a choice, but we should never say that it is an easy choice to make.
Most of the time it’s not an easy task to choose something that can bring you long-term happiness, when it involves sacrificing momentary happiness. Too many of us are stuck in the middle of the road, waiting to miraculously receive the necessary motivation before making the decisions that would bring us happiness. We don’t want to give up our current happiness, limp as it is, if we are not sure we can attain future happiness. But that’s not how it works, Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner teaches us. Whether we are talking about diet, exercise, or volunteering, motivation comes from eating or doing. Taking the first steps helps us to overcome the inertia we feel and make room for new habits. Once we begin to see the positive effects on our well-being and happiness, we are even more motivated to stick to these new patterns.
The change must not be seen only in our daily schedule, but it must be a change of depth, which will completely move our gravitational centre—that is, our attitude towards life. Happiness and unhappiness are mental states that perpetuate themselves, writes Randy Alcorn. That is, the more often we perpetuate certain states, the easier it is for them to become the premise from which we start to evaluate all things. Psychologist Martin Seligman says that pessimism and depression can stem from our thinking habits. While pessimists believe that negative events will last a long time and that any initiative will undermine them, optimists take a negative situation as a challenge and try even harder. The premises we start from completely change the outcomes we reach. The good news that modern psychology gives us is that these patterns of thinking are not fixed, as we tend to believe, but can change, as the Bible says, and we can be transformed by “renewing the mind.”
How can we do this in practice? Psychologists speak of a “competent management of attention” as the only condition necessary to improve every aspect of our lives, from mood to productivity, to relationships. “If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called ‘reality’. You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different,” explains Winfred Gallagher, behavioural psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. This is also why the Bible says things such as, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
It may seem to you that a discipline of the mind similar to that required by the Stoics is needed. But in Christianity, the individual does not strive to become something else on their own. The “good news” of Christianity has entered a world dominated by the philosophies of the Stoics and Epicureans, which resonate to this day. The natural charm that attracted so many people of the time to Christianity was that the teachings of Jesus illuminated the true path to happiness, seeking justice and truth, but at the same time emphasizing the need to enjoy the good and beautiful gifts God blessed the earth with for the happiness of His children. However, even these teachings, which still shed a strong light on history, would have remained barren if Jesus had not revealed to us that in relation to God, He Himself works in us for the transformation we need in order to be happy. This allows us to shift our attention from the fear that we will not succeed by ourselves, to the determination to be faithful to this relationship in which we trust that God will succeed in our place.