What Is Happiness?

Happiness too swiftly flies.


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   The time has come to take a careful look at "the pursuit of happiness," an expression enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. Such "pursuit," together with "life" and "liberty," is therein declared to be an "inalienable right" that the Creator has endowed upon "all men."

   For millions of us happiness is the basic fabric of the American Dream. For some it is a kind of materialistic Nirvana, featuring such attractions as sports utility vehicles and luxury cruises. But for others happiness is far more than a wisp or a vapor; it is a present fact of daily life.

   As a goal of life, happiness seems hard to top. As a word it is one of the most magnificent and exciting in the English language. To remove it from our vocabulary would be a terrible loss, for the term "happy" has woven itself into our daily conversation.

   We can't get away from the word. Its current meaning carries even more than the bright, pleasant feeling of gladness and delight. Thus "happy" is sometimes used to signify something good and right, in contrast to the opposite: "I am happy about

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the way it turned out." "A better arrangement would make them happier." "We will be happy to do this for you." Sometimes it is even worked incorrectly into a description of compulsive behavior, as when a gunman is described as being "trigger-happy" or a comic as "slap-happy."

   Since our marriage in 1987, Ruth and I have known nothing but what is known as happiness in our relationship, and we know scores of Christian married couples who, if asked, could match that statement. Such testimonies appear virtually unknown to the media, mainly because "happily married" people don't talk much about their lives together. The depressing news we hear and read about daily comes from the clash of incompatible temperaments.

   Happiness can be found in every segment of society, in every nation and culture, rich and poor, advanced and undeveloped. It appears that people with less money are happier than the wealthy, despite the lack of creature comforts that the gated neighborhoods find indispensable. Being poor does not prevent people from being happy, and being rich does not keep people from being miserable.

   Yet when we try specifically to define the word happiness, we encounter dissension. What is it? It is glee? Bliss? Gaiety? Elation? Definitions of the word often make it sound as if we all have a clear vision of happiness, and yet no one really knows exactly what it is.

   Here is one of my favorites: "Happiness is the look on a dieter's face on reaching the desired weight and heading for a restaurant." Jean-Jacques Rousseau came up with something similar: "Happiness is a good bank account, a good cook, and good digestion." Someone has said, "Happiness is never God-given, only God-permitted." Another has said that happiness is "not getting what you want, but wanting what you get." George Bernard Shaw wrote that "a lifetime of happiness would be hell on earth," and poet Edmund Spenser believed that "here on earth is no sure happiness." Schopenhauer, the gloomy philosopher, said that happiness is "simply relief from pain."

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   Historians tell us that in the original wording of the American Declaration of Independence, the "inalienable rights" guaranteed by the Creator were "life, liberty, and property." When objection was made by some of the Colonial delegates, Thomas Jefferson changed the word "property" in the final draft to "the pursuit of happiness." But as the New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) soon pointed out, "When happiness is the object of pursuit it leads us on a wild-goose chase and is never attained." Everyone wants to be happy, but not many make it to Bali Hai; and when they do arrive, it turns out often that they have reached just another island.

   Seeking earlier help, I went back to Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.).1 It seems this famed Greek scholar singled out happiness (makarios) as the "most noble and most pleasant" of all human goals, much to be preferred over ambition, duty, self-mastery, or perfection. He equated human happiness with excellence and magnificence. Splendid! But when he began to describe his great-minded, excellent, magnificent man, he lost me. Listen to this:

   "He [the 'happy' man] is his own best friend, and he thinks nothing is important. He is never fired with imagination, since there is nothing great in his eyes except, of course, himself, whom he values highly. He justly estimates himself at the highest possible rate. He wishes to be superior. His contempt for others makes him a bold man. He seeks honor through virtue and excellence, and is disposed to do men service, but he is ashamed to have a service done for him."

   And this prig is supposed to be happy?

   The French author Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote, "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever means they use, everyone tends toward this end. It is the motive of every human being, even of those who hang themselves."2 I love Pascal. He was a Christian and a brilliant scientist. He invented the adding machine, which later developed into the computer. His "Provincial Letters" are some of the funniest pieces ever composed by an avowed believer. But when he

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connected happiness with the end of a noose he may perhaps have come up short.

   Professor William James (1842-1910), the distinguished Harvard psychologist and author of Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote, "If we were to ask the question, 'What is human life's chief concern?' one of the answers we would receive would be, 'It is happiness.' How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is for most men the secret of all they do."3 Unfortunately the professor failed to give us specific directions for the gaining, keeping, and recovering of happiness.

   Thus happiness for our sages seems to be a distant, unobtainable yearning. It is like the mechanical rabbit that the greyhounds chase and never catch. Some say that if it exists at all it is momentary, transitory, brittle, unstable, and fickle.

   Perhaps that is why most of the world's literature from Homer to Hemingway is devoted to presenting the readership not with a luscious luau of human happiness but with a "Benjamin's mess" of human woe and anguish. The literary scene sets out to show that even when the customary tools for achieving happiness (such as beauty, wealth, and power) come within human reach, the recipients find the happiness escaping and their lives filled with bitterness and regret. Either that, or they destroy themselves chasing some imaginary "Moby Dick."

   As in life, so in literature. The lovely literary exceptions I would make are the nineteenth-century English novels, which always close (George Eliot's excepted) with a happy, delightful chiming of wedding bells. But novels are fiction, and most great novelists with whose work I am familiar even humorists such as Mark Twain seem personally to be rather surly and reclusive.

   When we look up the origin of the word "happiness," we find that it is not a biblical word. It comes from an Old Norse root, "hap" or "happ." This root carried the specific meaning of "good fortune," "chance," or luck in life." Our current words "perhaps," "mayhap," "happening," "happenstance," "haply" and "happy-go-lucky" are all derived from the same root as "happiness."

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   Originally, then, happiness simply meant what happens the "luck of the draw." But that is not what people in the English-speaking world today understand. Happiness does not necessarily depend on circumstances, nor is it caused by them. "Luck" and "chance" may help to create conditions of happiness, but they are not themselves happiness.

   Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), considered the father of modern psychology, made a remarkable statement in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. He said, "It seems that our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, that it is automatically regulated by the Pleasure-principle."4 Dr. Freud was wise enough not to discuss happiness, as he was limiting his interest to nervous disorders; but it is obvious that the "Pleasure-principle" has the same goal that Thomas Jefferson had when he added "the pursuit of happiness" to the Declaration of Independence. Even neurotics want to be happy.

   Socrates, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, had a friend named Aristippus, an African from Cyrene. This man seems to have reduced happiness to the dimensions of a stop-watch. He is reported to have said that happiness is simply "the pleasure of the moment and" he added, "that's all that counts."5

   Certainly we are happy when we complete a big assignment, or when the news is flashed that our candidate has been elected, or when the email tells us that a darling baby is born. Who of us would not be happy to have a wee grandchild rush into our arms? Aristippus had something. A beautiful golf drive makes me feel great until I slice the next shot into the rough. So when a time of happiness comes, says Aristippus, enjoy it to the full, but don't count on overtime.

   When we turn at last from discussing happiness to the joy of the Lord, we find something very different. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, "To miss the joy is to miss all." It comes to us from heaven trailing clouds of glory, and flows through us to others from springs deep within our own souls. This joy is the second fruit of the Holy Spirit.

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   Billy Sunday once declared, "If you have no joy, there's a leak in your Christianity somewhere." Joy, the joy of the Lord, is not something that vanishes when an urgent telegram arrives or a skid takes place on an icy sidewalk. Joy is a constant. It stays and weathers the shocks of life because God also stays. At such times, where else can we turn?

   Dostoevsky implied in his famous Legend of the Grand Inquisitor that Jesus never promised to make people happy; instead He said, "I will make you free."6 The Inquisitor insisted that people cannot handle freedom; they prefer an organization that vanquishes freedom in order to make them happy. To those of us who have claimed Jesus as our Savior and Lord, He brought something better than happiness. He brought freedom, but He also brought joy, which joy is Himself. He is our joy. He left us these beautiful words, first given to His disciples: "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11).

   Happiness itself is still desirable. In our fallen world we need all the happiness we can get, even if it turns out to be shortlived. But it's best not to sit around waiting for it or to waste time "pursuing" it. Happiness appears often when we least expect it.

   Let me continue to wish you Happy Birthday, Happy New Year, Happy Holidays, and all the other happy experiences. But there is a deeper wish in my heart: that the love of God in Christ Jesus may be poured out into your heart by the Holy Spirit, and that He will bless you with joy, true joy, wonderful joy, not just today, not just tomorrow, but always.

   Life has its ups and its downs, its whoops and its "oops." May Jesus see that your life has quick and easy access to melody and mirth in spite of everything, for in truth, you are His joy.


1. Aristotle's entire book should be read, particularly Book 4. Section 3. The Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, tr. D.P. Chase (London: J.M. Dent, 1949).

2. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, W.F. Trotter translation, Modern Library edition (New York: Random House, 1941, no. 425, Random House numbering).

3. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1958), p. 83.

4. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr. Joan Riviere (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949), pp. 298-99.

5. "Aristippus," article in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), pp. 90-91.

6. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Constance Garnett (New York: Modern Library, n.d.).

Chapter 17 || Table of Contents