Chances are, you’re chasing after happiness.
If you live in Australia, you might do it in one of four main ways: getting the right postcode; a higher pay packet; a more rewarding position or a sexier partner.
But if we’re honest , we know that lasting happiness is hard to find: no sooner does it turn up, than it quickly evaporates.
(Except for our Facebook friends: they always seem happy, with their Country Style gardens, their overseas holidays and their catalogue kids.)
Christians shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus warned against chasing after worldly happiness when he said:
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:26)
Surprisingly, secular psychology is also becoming wary of chasing happiness.
Secular Psychotherapist, Dr Russ Harris, has written a book called ‘The Happiness Trap’. In it he writes:
‘In the Western world we now have a higher standard of living that humans have ever known before…today’s middle class lives better than did the royalty of not so long ago…[and yet] almost one in two people will go through a stage in life when they seriously consider suicide and struggle with it for a period of two weeks or more. Scarier still, one in ten people will at some point actually attempt to kill themselves’. (p2-3)
That’s pretty sobering.
And while you might not be reaching for the razor blades, chances are you’ll feel pretty down about your life at some stage or another.
And yet, despite this reality, our wider culture believes a number of myths about happiness.
Here are three of them:
Myth #1: Happiness Is The Natural State For All Human Beings
We should feel happy 24/7.
Our culture insists that humans are naturally happy.’
Aint that the truth. And Social Media takes this to a whole new level.
But the statistics…clearly disprove this…one in ten adults will attempt suicide, and one in five will suffer from depression. What’s more, the statistical probability that you will suffer from a psychiatric disorder at some stage in your life is almost 30 percent.’
Not the cheeriest stats you’ve ever heard. But the reality is most of us are not happy much of the time.
According to the Bible, happiness is not our natural state in a fallen and broken world. And it’s great to see secular psychology admitting this.
Myth #2: If You’re Not Happy, You’re Defective
Shame on you for not being happy, you weak-minded person!
If happiness is normal, then unhappiness is abnormal.
Western society assumes that mental suffering is abnormal. It is seen as a weakness or illness, a product of mind that is somehow faulty or defective. This means that when we do inevitably experience painful thoughts and feelings, we often criticise ourselves for being weak and stupid.’
Now Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was not abnormal or defective.
Yet he knew deep sorrow from the ‘inside’, as one of us. When facing crucifixion, he said to his disciples:
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. (Matt 26:38)
I’m no Psychologist, but I’d say he wasn’t exactly happy. And considering what he was about to go through, that’s normal.
There’s nothing ‘defective’ about feeling unhappy in unhappy circumstances.
Myth #3: To Create a Better Life, You Must Get Rid of All Negative Feelings
Negative feelings will ruin your life.
This myth can be very dangerous. If we genuinely believe it, we’ll do enormous damage to those around us. Harris writes:
[H]ere’s the catch: the things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant.
He continues with an example:
For example, in an intimate long-term relationship, although you will experience wonderful feelings such as love and joy, you will also inevitably experience disappointment and frustration. There is no such thing as the perfect partner, and sooner or later conflicts of interest will arise.’
If you expect your marriage, or your friendships to only generate positive feelings, then what happens when you get angry at your spouse? Or disappointed in your friend?
It’s one reason there’s such a high divorce rate.
If Not Happiness, Then What?
There’s something more important than our happiness.
Harris says that instead of chasing ‘feelings of happiness’ that don’t last, we should decide to live our lives with purpose:
When we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling – it is a profound sense of a life well lived.’
This is where secular psychology comes close to a Christian view of humanity: don’t chase feelings, but live a life of higher purpose.
Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay goes a step further when he writes:
No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.’
As Christianity strongly values ‘a life lived for others’, this may help explain why Christians generally enjoy better mental health than secular people.
Why Jesus is Better than the Best Secular Psychology
Only He provides lasting meaning and purpose.
The Happiness Trap exposes some destructive lies that our secular culture believes. It shows us a better way to live. Yes, even Christians will find it helpful: it’s always powerful to be freed from lies.
But on its own, it doesn’t go far enough. Only by enthroning Jesus as our King can we find the meaning, satisfaction, and life that we’re designed for. Speaking to Samaritan woman at a town well, Jesus said:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)