Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are woven into the American dream. We love to pursue happiness in what we buy, eat, watch, and more.
When we focus on being happy, life can become focused on avoiding pain at all costs, and seeking pleasure in every area. Maybe that means slogging through a job so we can make it to the evenings and weekends and enjoy our indulgences of choice.
Some of us improve ourselves on the journey of finding happiness, whether that’s in the gym, in academic pursuits, or in our careers. Maybe we’re so focused on health and wellness that we’re always tweaking and optimizing our approach.
Often, however, we prioritize passive entertainment and sensory pleasure over self-improvement. No matter what, we’re all hoping to find happiness and satisfaction in our lives. As Christians, we might feel guilty about trying to be happy. Shouldn’t we be focused on a higher spiritual joy, not immediate gratification in a happy life?
Let’s discuss the issue of true happiness and what it means in the Christian life and our everyday choices.
What is Happiness?
Happiness can be hard to pin down. It’s a broad term, encompassing a variety of positive emotions like pleasure, joy, contentment, and satisfaction. Let’s define it as “a sense of well-being based on one’s personal feelings.”
This definition is based on one from Positive Psychology, which defines happiness as the positive emotions you feel in response to pleasurable activities. To be a happy person is to have an overall sense of satisfaction with your life.
Think about the last time you had a good day. You didn’t feel down or discouraged. You felt uplifted, with a sense of enjoyment, of accomplishment balanced with rest. You had emotions and experiences that filled your soul, nurturing your well-being, even in small ways. That’s what happiness is. We know it when we feel it.
In today’s culture and time in history, we have the luxury of pursuing a happy life. If you are privileged enough to have a safe home, food, clothes, and your other basic needs provided for, you can think about being happy and not solely about surviving.
Someone who is focused on survival can’t pursue happiness. If you don’t know where your next meal will come from, or you are sick or homeless or in an abusive situation, all you want to do is make it through and avoid more suffering.
If you are not in a survival situation, you have the freedom to ask questions about happiness and well-being and that should come with a responsibility to make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling to survive. This reality is based on the big-picture, Biblical view of happiness.
Achieving a sense of well-being is healthy, but being a constantly happy person isn’t realistic, and focusing on that as a goal can be self-defeating.
Bible Verses about Being Happy
As Christians, the Word of God is our source for understanding our walk with God. Throughout the Bible, you can read about joy, contentment, and satisfaction – in other words, happiness – connected to a godly life, being a person who does God’s will, and the fruits of the Spirit of God indwelling your heart.
The Bible also addresses shallow or fleeting happiness based on things that won’t last, treasures that will fade, money, or simply the temporary pleasures of this life. In essence, biblical happiness “derives from a secure and settled knowledge of God and a rejoicing in his works and covenant faithfulness” (Bible Gateway).
You might be able to relate this to your earthly relationships. Being happy outside of having good relationships with those around you is very difficult. Good relationships don’t guarantee mental health or happiness, but it’s just hard to be happy without love.
The Bible teaches that a close walk with God and faith in him makes true happiness possible. Living for the next world instead of this one, and choosing to walk in love instead of selfishness, is what makes happiness based on a firm foundation instead of shifting sand.
Some Biblical teachers try to differentiate between happiness and joy, saying that happiness is fleeting and earthly, while joy is godly and spiritual. Bible teacher Randy Alcorn says that trying to distinguish happiness from joy is creating a false dichotomy because biblically, they are the same thing. Anything that enhances our joy also enhances our happiness.
So, there’s nothing wrong with being happy. God created us to enjoy life, and our relationships with him and other people as long as we’re pursuing satisfaction through faith and love, not through selfishness, pride, or unkindness.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Scientific research has a few things to say about pursuing happiness. It shows us that while there are many worthwhile pursuits that can increase our sense of well-being, focusing on being happier can actually make us unhappy.
This paradox is based on the idea that happiness is not an achievement, but rather a byproduct of the way we live our lives.
For example, one study showed that when people were asked to focus on being happy, they actually reported greater levels of loneliness for the next two weeks. The researchers concluded that focusing on happiness made the participants more dissatisfied with their lives.
According to Fulfillment Daily, it’s not how intensely happy you feel that is important. Rather, it’s how often you feel happy. It’s how much you are able to enjoy the small things and everyday experiences.
Happiness also depends on whether you contribute to your well-being through healthy and positive behaviors. These activities are more important to your everyday enjoyment than seeking out Disneyland experiences, which can often leave you feeling let down or disappointed.
Perhaps this reality points to the difference between being happy and selfish. Although it is not selfish to take care of ourselves, it is selfish to center our lives on pursuing personal enjoyment.
Rather, we can choose to focus on our faith in God, how we can benefit other people, and how we can take care of ourselves and enjoy the gift of life.
If Not Happiness, Then What?
As discussed above, it’s not pursuing happiness that makes you happy. Rather, being happy is the outcome of other worthwhile pursuits. So what are some of the activities that generally contribute to a more enjoyable life?
Faith and spirituality are linked to happiness and better mental health. Participating in your church community and spending time in prayer are positively correlated with happiness and better mental health.
Social connections are also foundational to happiness. Isolation can make you miserable. In today’s culture, isolation has become increasingly common; this is especially so during the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Extended families don’t live near each other as often as they used to, and we are all shut up in our homes with our screens. You probably don’t know your neighbors well.
Lack of healthy friendships and connections can lead to depression and chronic loneliness. On the flip side, getting connected with others can contribute to greater well-being and improved overall level of life satisfaction.
If you’re socially anxious or unsure where to start, look for a structured activity that occurs regularly. This commitment takes the pressure off initiating activities, and all you have to do is show up. Make it a goal to talk to one or two people each time. If you do have friends but just feel too busy to socialize, look at your calendar and figure out how you can schedule friend time as an appointment.
It’s important to find enjoyment in the small and simple things in life. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine recommends noticing three things that went well each day. You could write down your observations in a gratitude or prayer journal to keep track of what you find.
Other positive activities include random acts of kindness, exercise, being in nature, listening to or playing music, and any activities that contribute to your self-development. Overcome any sense of learned helplessness and take small steps each day towards a more hopeful future. Seek Christian counseling for mental health to help you identify ways to get started.
While it’s good to take responsibility for your own well-being, seeking happiness can lead to too much self-focus, frustration, or prioritizing instant gratification. It’s more important to engage in activities that will lead to long-term happiness, including and most importantly, cultivating your faith in God.
“Preparing to Let Go”, Courtesy of Catalin Pop, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Happy”, Courtesy of Bruce Mars, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Smiley Face”, Courtesy of Jacqueline Munguia, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Joy”, Courtesy of Preslie Hirsch, Unsplash.com, CC0 License