Why is Happiness Hard?
Why can it be so elusive to so many people? Happiness.
You’d think that these days, people would be pretty happy. We seem to be living longer; people in Western society “have” a lot more than people did generations ago. (Except time.) But I wonder if as you read this (and as I type it), you sense that those things really don’t have much to do with happiness. Quite often missionaries go to poor countries and comment on how happy people seem despite the fact that they don’t “have” a lot. But the eyes are deceiving.
But what kind of “having” matters? Does “having” have anything to do with happiness? One of the plagues of modern culture is the false notion that “if it feels good, do it.” How incredibly destructive. Whether that’s “having” some thing, or even a person in a relationship with someone else. Proverbs 14:12 comes to mind: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” For some reason we think that posessing something gives freedom. But usually, posessing things restricts freedom.
A few months ago I heard a great definition of happiness: “Happiness is being content with what you already have.” I’m reading a book by Allen Wheelis called How People Change. In it he speaks to this point about being content; he uses an illustration: “A farmer must know the fence which bounds his land but need not spend his life standing there, looking out, beating his fists on the rails; better he till his soil, think of what to grow, where to plant the fruit trees. However small that area of freedom, attention and devotion may expand it to occupy the whole of life” (31).
I love that. So often we look over the fence to what other people “have” and spend our days coveting. (Watching lots of TV doesn’t help–coveting is at the heart of advertising.) But better, he says, to till our own soil, plant fruit trees and focus on the gifts we’ve already been given. So many of us (and I have fallen victim to this too), want to change the world and find our happiness in pursuits that are simply beyond us. But what if our happiness was closer to home than we think? What if we just learned to be awesome at 1 metre of influence around us? It need not end there; but too often I think we look over the neighbour’s fence before the mirror.
Happiness also has to do with meaning. If our lives don’t have a sense of meaning or overarching purpose, it’s going to be hard to be happy. The affluence of our society hasn’t fixed this. In fact, too much money often breeds misery. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about it being hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? (Matthew 19:24) At any rate, at the heart of contedness is finding your purpose in God. As it says in Proverbs 16:20: “Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the LORD.” The essence of the biblical word for “faith” or “belief” is trust.
In the end, happiness is hard because you have to work at it. It is not a right. It is not something everyone has. It is not easy. Happiness is hard. Or, at least, it can be. And most things in life that are worth anything take work. A strong marriages takes work. A robust faith takes work. Raising good kids takes work. Finding purpose in your work takes work. Keeping good friendships takes work. Notice that line from Proverbs 16:20: “Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper.” The key word is attentive. Till your soil.
The modern world is not helping. Many of us are tired and so it’s easier to turn on the TV than cultivate a deeper bond with our loved ones. Many of us are lazy so it’s easier to let important things slide down the priority list as the ‘important’ gets replaced with the ‘urgent.’ Many of us are scared: We are scared to pay too much attention to the metre of influence around us because we’re afraid we’ll discover we don’t actually know what we’re doing and that, as psychiatrist Scott Peck says, we’re “stumbling around in the dark.” Perhaps we’re also scared that we’ll discover that becoming the people we want to become is hard work and we’re not sure if we want to put in the effort. Better have a nice bow in the present than to discover the box is almost empty. It saddens me that so many people buy lottery tickets. But it’s never going to happen. And even if it did, it wouldn’t really change anything.
I am increasingly convinced that we need to become warriors. Warriors for our faith; for our families; for our selves. Not in the violent kind of way, but in the incredibly trained and resilient kind of way. The world in which we live is often dark and not really going to help you. I’m not trying to be pessimistic here!–just realistic. You and I have to do the hard work ourselves, leaning on the only true God, and the saints around us. Be a warrior in and for Christ.
Happiness is not a newspaper. It doesn’t get delivered to your door. It often takes work. And sometimes it is not in the cards. I truly feel that God wants obedience and trust before happiness. But there is the crux. Without obedience, without listening to the Voice and direction of God in our lives, any happiness we get is really just going to be a sugar high–something that feels good for a while but ends us giving us a headache.
Happiness often takes work. So do most things that are worth anything. But that’s why they bring us so much joy.