In Psychology research, for every 100 studies on depression there is one study on happiness. However, there is a new interest in researching happiness, both in the world of psychology as well as the Christian world, from Martin Seligman’s highly respected Positive Psychology (not to be confused with positive thinking), John Piper’s apologetic for Christian hedonism, to Christopher Jamison’s book Finding Happiness.
As Christians the first hurdle to overcome is actually to believe that God wants us to be happy.
Pollyanna tells us in the film of the same name that there are 826 glad texts in the Bible, and if God goes to the trouble to tell us to be happy that many times, we should pay attention.
Of course happiness is a promiscuously misunderstood word. In psalm 16:11 we read, ‘You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.’ True happiness is to be found in God’s presence which is a gift of grace as well as something we experience when we are pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). How to become pure in heart is another story.
We often think that happiness is only to be experienced in temporary ways. But that is to confuse happiness for momentary pleasures like eating a bar of chocolate.
There are things that bring us enduring happiness. Many more married people say they are very happy than single people, despite the bad press wedlock gets these days.
One professor in the United States began his career investigating disgust. One of his tests was to give people fried grasshoppers to eat. When he wanted to measure moral disgust he gave people a shirt to wear apparently worn by Adolf Hitler. In the end fed up with measuring negative feelings he tried to work out if there was a positive feeling, which was the opposite of moral disgust.
He discovered something he called elevation. Apparently when we see somebody doing something extraordinarily kind for someone else, or we do something good for someone else we can feel this sense of elevation, which is a form of happiness, and not to be confused with pride.
Another interesting piece of research on happiness is that most people operate within set parameters of happiness, ranging from the pessimistic to the optimistic. 23 people who had won the lottery were followed up in terms of their levels of happiness. After the initial euphoria of winning millions had worn off, those winners, without exception, fell back to their previous set levels of happiness. So money does not make us happy in the way we might expect it to.
Scientists didn’t think that people could move out of these set levels of happiness, but that view is now changing. In Christian terms when Peter talks about a joy that is inexpressible and glorious (1 Peter 1:8), and we experience a peace that is beyond human understanding, we have long affirmed that our levels of happiness are not determined by our genes, or circumstances.
It was Gandhi who famously said, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ Jesus of Nazareth was the most joyous being to walk the earth, and our reputation as Christians is very often that of righteously mean people, who think it is more important to be right than loving.
I came across this version of psalm four in the Grail translation, ‘‘What can bring us happiness?’ many say. Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord. You have put in my heart a greater joy than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.’ Again we are reminded about the happiness that comes from being in God’s presence, which is greater than that gained by an abundance of material possessions.
If people in the world could see Christians exhibiting that authentic happiness in the midst of difficult economic circumstances I am sure the queues that used to be outside Next sales, would transfer to churches.
Another interesting bit of research suggests that happiness is infectious and rubs off on others. I am sure that is also true of misery. If we truly have the path of life that brings joy and happiness then now is the time to allow that happiness radiate through our relationships. Perhaps the greater part of being contagiously holy as Jesus was, is to be contagiously happy.
For more resources on Happiness and a Christian course to explore this - see www.livability.org.uk/church/happiness