Happiness seems to be an ever-moving target for which every heart aims. As a Christian, I’ve learnt to be less blatant in expressing my pursuit of happiness, but all the same this longing motivates so many of my actions and decisions. When I take the time to examine the motives of my behaviour and the reasons behind feeling discontent, I hear the familiar pleading of my heart, ‘But I just want to be happy’.
And what’s wrong with that? I often feel privately dissatisfied with the ‘Christian’ take on happiness. We’re to die to self and take up our cross. We’re to put the needs of others before our own, to give generously and make sacrifices. We’re to suffer, and we’re to rejoice in it! We’re to seek God’s will for our life, not just follow our dreams. Does this leave any room for us to be happy? Does the desire to secure my own happiness make me selfish? And if the pursuit of happiness is a self-absorbed prerogative then why have I been designed to seek it so desperately?
When I examine my thoughts and desires more closely, I start to see that my pursuit of happiness is a relentless chase after what I do not (yet) have. When I was single I was convinced that I would find contentment and happiness in finding the right guy. When I found the right guy, it brought joy and contentment for a time but soon a new longing surfaced. I wanted to be engaged and to know that he was truly committed to me, and wasn’t satisfied until he proposed. For a time, the excitement of this new phase and the enjoyment in planning my perfect wedding brought me satisfaction and delight. But soon I felt a new longing to be married and living with my fiancé and the wait seemed so long. I was convinced that being married would secure my ultimate happiness. And though my marriage has and does bring me great joy, it wasn’t long before discontentment resurfaced. Perhaps a baby? Or should we get on the property ladder? I want to lose weight.
I’m a slow learner! Perhaps it takes a life time truly to learn that chasing what we do not have does not bring us happiness. Things that promise to fulfil our deepest needs only satisfy us for a time before the next desire takes over. Psychologists call this the Hedonic Treadmill – the enjoyment of a new pleasure wearing off over time. And a treadmill it is! We keep chasing and never get anywhere. And we don’t need to lose what we have in order to feel dissatisfied again, we just start wanting more. It’s a little like drinking alcohol – the more we drink, the more we need to drink to get that same good feeling. I need the next thing to feel happy. I am a happiness addict.
Since I can’t truly find happiness looking forward to the next fix, perhaps I need to look back. After wading through the weeds of materialism, relationship security and career success, I recall the moments of deepest fulfilment. And it’s encountering God. Experiencing an intimate relationship with Him, knowing his forgiveness and believing his promises fulfils the deepest longings of my heart. His deep love for me satisfies my need to be wanted and valued. His spirit working to change me gives me the identity I seek. But more than that – he takes my eyes off me. When I’m closely walking with him, reading his word and feeling his spirit stir my heart to pray, I’m filled with awe and just want to sit at his feet. He is truth and light, and he has gone to the ends of the earth to enable a relationship between us. When I stop pursuing happiness, and start pursuing God, I find true contentment. I stop wanting. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
Yet, ironically, these times of close communion with God usually occur in my neediest moments. When the things I usually find my security in begin to crumble – friendships, family, work – I run to God and find contentment resting in him and casting my burdens on him. These are not my ‘happiest’ times but my most secure and content. Pursuing enjoyment ultimately leaves us feeling empty because we’re deeper than those things. So God doesn’t offer up money, relationships or career success as the answer – he offers himself. My Dad once explained to me that when God blessed Abraham in Genesis 15 he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’ The greatest reward God could offer Abraham was himself. It is not the pursuit of happiness I must be concerned with; it is the pursuit of God.
And knowing God now, in this life, is only the beginning. If God is more concerned with shaping and teaching me now than securing my happiness, it is only because he has perfectly secured it already in the glorious future he has planned. In Revelation 21, the new heavens and new earth is depicted:
‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among his people, and he will dwell with them… He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
Isn’t it wonderful that heaven is described first and foremost as God dwelling with his people? Being with him will be what brings us the greatest joy. And I know there will be no discontentment or striving for the next thing in heaven. No treadmill! CS Lewis describes heaven beautifully in The Last Battle:
And as He spoke [Aslan] no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
We really cannot fathom the bliss that awaits us in heaven. And what a high price Jesus paid to make this possible for me and for you! Surely then, knowing this Saviour, who secured this future for us, must bring us ultimate fulfilment. It seems I’ve been asking the wrong questions all along. I’ve not been designed desperately to seek my own happiness. I’ve been designed to seek God and enjoy him, but because I don’t, I have an empty void to fill. And seeking God’s will is what leads to contentment – not chasing our dreams. It’s only when I forget the enjoyment and fulfilment that knowing God brings, that the Christian life seems like a set of rules that deprive us of pleasure and happiness. Once I am released from the idol of happiness, and step off the treadmill, it is then that I find true contentment.
Kim Gaines Eckert wrote an article on the psychology of Happiness, in which she describes her experiences in counselling unhappy people.
When a new client enters my office and asks me to help her feel better, I am all in for the journey. And yet I hope that journey takes us somewhere different than the hedonic treadmill. I hope it looks a little more like Paul’s contentment in Philippians 4:12: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
What was his secret?
‘For me, to live is Christ’.