The (never-ending) Pursuit of Happiness

Do you want to be happy? Chances are, if you’re like most of us, the answer is a resounding yes. We Americans are obsessed with being happy. We pursue it with a sense of fervency and urgency—“if only I could have this experience, or that job, or this relationship, or that thing then…”—which should tip us off to the fact that something has gone amiss. Like a perpetually receding end zone, happiness remains in view but always 10 yards away.

Like a perpetually receding end zone, happiness remains in view but always 10 yards away.

We Americans live in the land of the plenty, yet so often we feel empty. Want entertainment? Go to a movie, catch a game, check out the theatre. Want exercise? Run through Suburbia, go to the gym, or join a league. Want to read? Join a book club, go to the library, download the Kindle App. Want X? Go to A or B or C. Want Y? No problem…there is an App for that. Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation of early America is still true of us today: we find “a strange melancholy in the midst of abundance.”[ref]Quoted in J.P. Moreland and Klauss Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 2.[/ref]

What gives? Why is something that we all want—happiness—so elusive? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of “How Happy are you?” we should first ask “How are you happy?” Or better: “What is Happiness?

Today, when people think of happiness, they usually have in mind something like “a feeling of pleasure” or “personal fulfillment.” But this is a shallow understanding of happiness, and according to the philosopher J.P. Moreland, this shallow understanding of happiness is destroying our lives.

According to the philosopher J.P. Moreland, this shallow understanding of happiness is destroying our lives.

Why? Because it fosters a “getting” mentality: a lifetime goal of  “pleasurable satisfaction” places our focus on us, and the result is “a culture of self-absorbed individual who can’t live for something larger than we are.”[ref]Ibid., 17.[/ref] We are a culture filled with “empty selves.”

Maybe we need to back up and reassess our definition of happiness. Maybe happiness is not about getting something. Maybe it is about giving something. But what?

The key to happiness is in living our lives for something—better, someone—greater than ourselves.

Paradoxically, the answer is “ourselves.” The key to happiness is in living our lives for something—better, someone—greater than ourselves. As Jesus puts it in the Gospels:

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26, NASB)

A life of self-giving love for God and man is a life on the road to true happiness. Why? Because Jesus is our greatest need and highest good, and happiness can only be found by living for and being like Jesus.

As the scholar John W. Gardner acknowledges, “Existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything. The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.”[ref]Quoted in ibid., 32.[/ref]

To put it another way, we must learn to give ourselves away for Christ’s sake.