The Pursuit of Happiness

The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article entitled “There’s More To Life Than Being Happy” (Link in the title). The author, Emily Esfahni Smith, takes some time to explore Viktor Frankl, his story, and book Man’s Search for Meaning. She also explores the research of Roy F. Baumeister, Florida State University,Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota, Jennifer L. Aaker, Stanford University, and Emily N. Garbinsky, Stanford University on the differences between the happy life and the meaningful life.

In their abstract, the researchers write, “Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences…Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness…Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker.”

I have counseled a few couples in the past several years who were experiencing deep marital problems. I could usually tell when the relationship was roaring inevitably toward the straights between Scylla and Charybdis. The tell-tale sign would be when one of the spouses would say, “God just wants me to be happy.”

I’m sorry. I’ve never read that in the scriptures. I can’t find the reference anywhere.

How did we ever get to the point to believe that happiness was the ultimate goal of life? Have we taken to place the Declaration of Independence on the same level as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures? (To be fair, I don’t think “pursuit of happiness” meant the same thing in 1775 that it means in the 21st century. But I will leave that to philologists and linguists to research and explain.)

Those whose chief aim in life is “to be happy” are not only doomed to disappointment but they also tend to be extremely self-centered. Happiness depends on happenstance: when fortune favors me, when the stars align, I win the lottery, and my ship sails in.

But what about day-to-day living? What about the disappointments, frustrations, heart-break, and tragedies we experience in our lives? Are these worthless events and situations? Or is there a higher purpose to our lives–a meaning–a telos (or purpose)?

As a believer in God, I believe the universe has meaning. I don’t look at tragedy and say, “How can you believe in God with all of the horror in the world?” Instead, I say, “How can I not believe in God?” If I didn’t believe in God then horror, pain, and suffering would have no redeeming value–there would be no meaning in pain. There would be no way to gauge good vs. evil because they would be meaningless concepts. Pain would just be an event. Death would merely be an organism that has expired. How it died or at what age it died would be inconsequential.

I look at tragedy and say, “Without God, I cannot even call something a tragedy.”

Unlike some who like to point to Frankl, I do not believe it is up to us to create meaning. I believe we have all been given telos–a meaning outside of ourselves–by God. Yes, we may have to do some searching as Frankl suggests. But it has already been created and it is God-given.

Let’s do away with this attitude that “God just wants me to be happy.” The often misquoted Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” is usually lifted out of its immediate context. The rest of the verse continues, “whohave been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…”

There is the purpose for which we have been formed.

What is the “good” that God works for in all things? The good that God is working for is that his children who “are called according to his purpose” are “conformed to the image of his Son.” Paul, the author of Romans and most of the New Testament, consistently points out that transformation into the image of Jesus, developing “the mind of Christ”, being “conformed into his likeness” is what living is all about. It is our purpose.

The last time I looked, Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He suffered tremendously. And yet, his life was filled with joy, meaning, and purpose. He knew what life in the full meant.

Happiness does not lead to unselfish love, self-sacrifice, and heroism. God-given purpose does.

Something to think about…

Week Five Guide to Solitude


About Darryl Willis

Darryl has been working for non-profits for over 36 years. His current work takes him to Ukraine several times a year. He has fallen in love with the country and the people. Darryl writes poetry and his work has appeared in several online and print journals.
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5 Responses to The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Paul Smith says:

    Darryl, excellent thoughts – and I have said much the same in an earlier post. I think part of the problem is in the way we translate certain passages of Scripture (obviously pertaining mostly to Bible believing Christians). For instance, the CEB translates the beatitudes and Psalm 1 as “Happy is…” Have we not all heard the sermons on the “Be Happy Attitudes…” I really, really like your distinction between being a giver and being a taker – and the relationship between meaningfulness and happiness.



    • As always, Paul, thanks for the comment. Indeed, I believe we have missed the point of the word makarios especially in Matthew 5. It does often mean “happy” or prosperous as in not having any more concerns (the Greek gods were happy in they were far removed from the problems of mankind). However, it is used in a paradoxical way. If we translated makarios as “spiritually prosperous” then Matthew 5 would start off with “Spiritually prosperous are those who are spiritual paupers.” Jesus rarely says anything that should be taken at face value. He is always trying to put the disciples and his listeners on edge–to create a dissonance as it were: to make his hearers think.

  2. Dirk says:

    Amen Darryl! A great post. Isn’t it amazing how we tend to think that our “faith” in Jesus should bring us something different than the faith of the apostles, and for that matter, the faith our Lord himself, brought to them. We live to glorify Him, regardless of earthly circumstances. That is a joyful calling. Thanks for the blog post.

  3. Pingback: Week three: Holiness (January 21, 2013) | Coffee Cup Theology

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