Not Happy? Don’t Worry

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By Mark A. Taylor

Just when you think the world is beyond hope, here comes the United Nations trying to bring a smile. Did you know that Monday last week, March 20, was International Day of Happiness? Did you know it was the fourth such day, having been “adopted by consensus of all 193 member states of the United Nations” on June 28, 2012? Did you miss your local International Day of Happiness celebration?

If so, I’m right there with you.

Maybe Americans don’t make much of celebrating happiness, because, according the U.N.’s World Happiness Report 2017, the United States has slipped to 14th place in the annual rankings of 155 nations. Even worse, the U.S. has fallen to 19th place in happiness rankings of rich countries, compared with third place just over a decade ago.

The happiness ratings are a factor of a population’s income, life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity, and perceived government corruption. Maybe that last item is the most significant these days. One source reported that Americans’ “trust in government has plummeted to the lowest level in modern history.” No wonder so many are so unhappy!

Should we worry about this?

Frankly, I think no, because—for at least two reasons— I believe happiness should not be our goal.

For one, the pursuit of happiness is often a trap. Happiness comes and goes according to what happens: my steak is tasty, my team wins the tournament, the movie makes me laugh. But life needs more than a constant stream of short-lived pleasures. No matter how much happiness we experience, it will never be enough.

Instead, something deeper brings satisfaction. Dan Ariely quoted research from social psychologist Roy Baumeister who said meaning follows a pursuit of “our deepest values and sense of self.” And his research shows that “pursuing meaning is often associated with increased stress and anxiety.”

Completing a doctorate, finishing a chemotherapy regimen, seeing a troubling teenager grow into a responsible young adult—all these bring satisfaction, but each experience also includes days of toil and tears.

Even without social psychologists and U.N. data gatherers, Christians understand this. Christians give their lives to spread the gospel, build the church, and serve their neighbors. In the process, they taste something more lasting than happiness and even deeper than satisfaction: the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Here’s what Christ promises: You don’t need to be happy to discover joy. This is not some Pollyanna sentimentality, but instead, a realistic look at what this life requires and what the next life promises. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus told his first followers (John 16:33). All of us living for him since then have seen what he means. And we’re OK with that, because happiness isn’t our highest goal.

 

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