The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is to create a new government ministry—the country’s first ministry of happiness. It will be dedicated to “putting a smile on every face”. It also aims to track their smiling citizens’ growth in happiness.
The state’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, said, “The state will be made responsible for happiness and tolerance of its citizens and will rope in psychologists to counsel people on how to be always happy.”
The reason this caught my eye was that I was preparing to preach this Sabbath on “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”—so happiness had been uppermost in my contemplations this week. I had also been listening to a lecture Carl Trueman gave at our Shaftesbury Square congregation—and he unpacked a further level of significance to the quest for happiness.
Without being overdramatic I believe the pursuit of happiness (or The Great Happiness Project) lies at the root of many of society’s problems—both personal and social. Obviously I have no problem with happiness—I’m all for it—but the pursuit of it is the problem.
Trueman quotes American sociologist Philip Rieff who set out four stages of Western civilization:
- ‘Political Man’ of classical civilisation—man defined by the city and community
- ‘Religious Man’ of medieval times—man defined by belonging to his religious grouping
- ‘Economic Man’—man defined by his work
- ‘Psychological Man’—man defined by his internal view of himself.
Trueman goes on to draw out the significance of this for the whole sexuality and gender debate, and makes many points worth contemplating. I would recommend you listen to it if you want to understand how we have arrived at where we are at. In fact I would say it is essential listening for all young people.
It seems to me that a seismic change occurred between Rieff’s last phase and the other three—‘Psychological Man’ is profoundly self-referential. Man’s sense of self is no longer communal, but internal. Man is curved in on himself; tied in a Gordian knot of self. That was Luther’s definition of sin: Man curved in on himself. Now we have arrived at a point where that curving in on oneself is the reference point for every action. Previously sin may have been held in check by our sense of identification with wider communities—Rieff’s other three phases—but now the handbrake is off, and we are picking up speed. And the issues aren’t the issue, they are consequences of the deification of personal happiness.
This final phase may perhaps (tongue slightly in cheek here!) have been on the slow burner since the American Declaration of Independence set the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in stone as an ‘unalienable right’, but it has certainly accelerated to warp drive proportions in the last few decades. Its apex is the often unstated, but widely held, belief that my happiness defines everything—even who I am.
Happiness has become such a key currency, in fact the only currency, that all arguments are expected to fall aside to the claim “But if a person isn’t happy…”
It is used to decide moral and ethical issues: “I was no longer happy in my marriage,” “I wasn’t happy as a man,” “Life had no more sparkle for her.” And of course that makes sense, for having forsaken God we no longer have any external standard of right and wrong; we only have what makes us happy.
The problem with this investment in happiness is that the kitten has become a lion—and a hungry one at that. We have developed such a generation of happiness addicts that they can’t cope with criticism or real debate—Generation Snowflake, as one writer called them. We are so committed to the happiness project that we are almost powerless to halt the tide of moral degeneracy sweeping the West—all boundaries falling before the mighty “Who are you to deny my happiness?” We train people that their happiness is what life is all about, and then we are surprised when they exit life because they aren’t happy.
Philosopher Eric Hoffman wrote, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”
The Bible’s King Solomon reached that conclusion three millennia ago. “I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure… Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1,10)
Journalist and social commentator Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “Happiness is like a young deer, fleet and beautiful. Hunt him, and he becomes a poor frantic quarry; after the kill, a piece of stinking flesh.”
This pursuit of happiness is a kind of insanity—it involves living in denial. Men and women and young people who use happiness as a mask to cover over their own pain, shortcomings, fears. Keep moving, keep chasing—anything so you don’t have to listen to yourself, listen to silence, face the past, or the real you—those deepest darkest truths about yourself and about life.
What is the solution? We need something bigger than happiness. Something that can cope with the pain of life—a joy that sorrow can’t destroy. We need an anchor outside ourselves and our own lives. If we let our happiness define us we risk disappointment in the short-term, and guarantee disaster in the long-term. What is that anchor outside of ourselves and the vicissitudes of life?
Malcolm Muggeridge found the answer, “The pursuit of happiness is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness. For this discovery I am beholden to Jesus.”
It’s as I prepare to preach on “Blessed are those who mourn” that I grasp again the counter-intuitiveness of the gospel. Those who eschew the false trails of happiness, and face the reality of a broken world, broken desires, and personal sin, and weep over them, they are the ones who find comfort, hope and joy.
Christians are to be marked both by joy and mourning. We are to be the most joyful of people, but also the most realistic. So we need to live in such a way that runs counter to the world’s happiness project. Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t be afraid to mourn over the things the Bible teaches us to mourn over—not just the latest fashionable social media causes
- Don’t be afraid to let people see that these things bother you.
- Live lives that are marked by commitment to something when we aren’t happy in it—commitment and faithfulness trump happiness
- Live lives that are marked by confident trust, and even joy, amidst pain and suffering
- Let your joy in the great unchangeables and the great certainties that flow out of relationship with God be seen.
- Train our children not to live by happiness, but by greater values—godly ones
- Demonstrate real joy in our worship, and conversation about Christ—is he your heart’s delight?
- Don’t buy into the Instagram world—take time to enjoy the moment without having to tell the world that you are enjoying the moment.
- Don’t hang your joy on your circumstances.
If some of the above seem way too radical, maybe I’ve got it wrong, but consider—could it be that the happiness virus has infected you?
Happiness is the poor sister of joy. Christians have a joy that outlasts sorrow, outshines disappointment, and outlives even life itself. In a world of poor substitutes we need to display the real thing, not solely as a positive witness to the joy of knowing Christ, but also as a corrective to the crippling inward curve of man.