Thursday, March 09, 2006

Happiness?


“He who dies with the most toys wins”

- Late twentieth century proverb


I just finished reading a short essay from ChristianityToday.com. According to a February, 2006 Pew Research survey, “Evangelicals are 26 percent more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than Americans as a whole.”

Why does the poll seem to reveal such a significant gap between Evangelical Christians and the rest of America? Christianity Today asked Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, who concluded that there are probably many reasons:

“Religion, especially Christianity, emphasizes forgiveness, reduction of anxiety through prayer, gratitude, and other virtues, Smith said. In addition to this, evangelical churches provide various tools, teachings, beliefs, and practices that tend to increase happiness.”

I did a bit of digging into the nuts and bolts of the survey and saw some things that didn’t surprise me and some that did. Married people, for example, are more likely than unmarried people to describe themselves as being happy. African-Americans seem to be less happy than whites or Hispanics. Retirees and those currently employed are about equally happy, while the unemployed are significantly less likely to consider themselves happy. Church goers are happier than those who don’t attend church. People who are rushed are less happy than those who don’t feel rushed. Healthier people are happier than their opposites, as are those with more education. Republicans, at least in February, tended to feel happier than Democrats and Independents. I suspect that survey trend might change if Pew conducts a survey after November’s mid-term elections.

There was one interesting finding that seems to refute the old adage that money can’t buy happiness. According to Pew:

“Our survey shows that nearly half (49%) of those with an annual family income of more than $100,000 say they're very happy. By contrast, just 24% of those with an annual family income of less than $30,000 say they're very happy.”

How did this finding affect Evangelicals and church goers? Christianity Today noted:

“The study also found that the happiness achieved by attending church could be modified by personal income. In some ways, the survey found, money can seem to buy happiness. Half of those who attended church weekly and had an income of $50,000 or more said they were very happy. But only 37 percent of weekly attendees earning less than $50,000 reported they were very happy.”

Is the data about income and happiness accurate? I’m not sure. But it does pose some other interesting questions. Have historic and Biblical Christianity included material wealth in their formulas to happiness? Is happiness a Christian virtue? Just what constitutes happiness anyway?

Florida State University professor Darrin McMahon sees a rift of sorts between modern Christianity’s views on happiness than those of the historic Church:

“Christians in the early church, he said, did not expect to have happiness before death. Much of Augustine's City of God, he notes, criticizes those who seek perfect happiness in this world. Original sin, Augustine wrote, made earthly happiness impossible.”

Early this morning I dusted off my copy of Augustine's masterpiece. There, page 112, I found this interesting comparison between a poor man and a rich man:

“Of these two men let us suppose that one is poor, or rather middling of circumstances; the other very rich. But the rich man is anxious with fears, pining with discontent, burning with covetousness, never secure, always uneasy, panting from the perpetual strife of his enemies, adding to his patrimony indeed by these miseries to an immense degree, and by these additions also heaping up most bitter cares. But the other man of moderate wealth is contented with a small and compact estate, most dear to his own family, enjoying the sweetest peace with his kindred neighbours and friends, in piety religious, benignant in mind, healthy in body, in life frugal, in manners chaste, in conscience secure. I know not whether any one can be such a fool, that he dare hesitate which to prefer. As, therefore, in the case of these two men, so in two families, in two nations, in two kingdoms, this test of tranquility holds good; and if we apply it vigilantly and without prejudice, we shall quite easily see where the mere show of happiness dwells, and where real felicity.”

One of the problems I see with this issue of happiness is that we often define it solely in material terms. When I was young, for example, happiness meant the Boston Celtics winning another world championship or my winning a game of stickball. As I made my way out of the poverty of my youth my definition of happiness changed. A refrigerator full of my favorite foods became my delight. Once the fridge was full, happiness meant getting my candidate elected to high office. I don’t think I ever defined happiness at any of those points in my life. My thinking just seemed to evolve in direct proportion to my perceived needs, almost all of which were material.

Therein, I think, lies the problem. When happiness is viewed in solely in material terms it eludes us. Something makes us happy one day, then unhappy the next. The old adage of the boat-owner is oh so true. He’s only happy on the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it. One day the boat is floating his worldview to some pinnacle of human happiness. The next, the dreaded thing is sinking it to the depths of despair.

No one has ever defined happiness better than Jesus. And, nowhere was that definition outlined more clearly than in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:3-9 (New International Version)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they will be called sons of God.”

The Greek word used in this section of Holy Writ to define these states of blessedness is “makarios.” In each case the Greek word can be translated to mean “happy.” In other words, Jesus seemed to be telling us that the path to happiness is paved with virtues like mercy, purity of heart, hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, empathy, meekness, and a clear understanding of what a right relationship with God looks like.

Jesus’ earliest followers learned this lesson well:

1 Timothy 6:9-11 (New Living Translation)

“But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. But you, Timothy, belong to God; so run from all these evil things, and follow what is right and good. Pursue a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.”

Jesus, the Church fathers, and the earliest Christian disciples had a much healthier view of what it meant, or should mean, to be happy than many of us living in the unparalleled wealth of the twenty-first century. It’s no wonder, then, that so few of us seem to be really happy. After seeing the results of the Pew survey, then, I think it might be time for all of us to re-examine our definition of what constitutes happiness.

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2 comments:

James Fletcher Baxter said...

Once we discover the actual center of all things we are alingned properly with the universe and every thing in it.

Until then, the natural man proceeds through life with the everpresent illusion of ego-centrism misleading him into self-excused carnal indulgences and material priorities - and their consequences.

Thus, happiness is a possible effect - not a cause.

Defining centrality is crucial - and it does not occur as an act of the will. It is the natural result of recognizing superiority! His name is Jesus.

The day will come when "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess..." Even if a person does not choose to give Him place, the knees and the tongues know their Creator! Even "the stones would cry out!" Selah

Semper Fidelis

phred said...

Excellent post. Amen, I say.
I noticed your previous post on Emporia. It reminded me of the many times I loaded my truck there at the IBP packing plant. And the times I ate at the Chrome Cafe while I waited. I wonder if the little cafe is still there ??