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What is Happiness? 

This presentation is the first of a new series on Happiness. The title is What Is Happiness?

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This presentation is the first of a new series on Happiness. The title is What Is Happiness? We should start by defining.

I had someone come to my counseling office once who was a very unhappy person. When I first talked to her over the phone, she told me that she was depressed, but when she came in, she said, “No matter what I do I just can’t be happy.” And I said, “Well, what have you tried?” And she said, “Everything.” “Everything?” I said. “Give me some examples.” “Well, I’ve been on shopping sprees and even bought a new car. I just got a pedicure. Last week I went for a massage. I thought all new clothes might help. But no – no matter how kind I am to myself, no matter how much money I spend, I’m still not happy. It’s so depressing.” Eventually, part of her therapy consisted of learning a car is something you buy so you can get around, not something you buy to make you happy. If you do get a new car, you might be happy, but once it gets old, you won’t be anymore. Accumulating things only produces short-term happiness, not the result we’re all hoping for.

This presentation is the first of a new series on Happiness. The title is What Is Happiness? We should start by defining.

I had someone come to my counseling office once who was a very unhappy person. When I first talked to her over the phone, she told me that she was depressed, but when she came in, she said, “No matter what I do I just can’t be happy.” And I said, “Well, what have you tried?” And she said, “Everything.” “Everything?” I said. “Give me some examples.” “Well, I’ve been on shopping sprees and even bought a new car. I just got a pedicure. Last week I went for a massage. I thought all new clothes might help. But no – no matter how kind I am to myself, no matter how much money I spend, I’m still not happy. It’s so depressing.” Eventually, part of her therapy consisted of learning a car is something you buy so you can get around, not something you buy to make you happy. If you do get a new car, you might be happy, but once it gets old, you won’t be anymore. Accumulating things only produces short-term happiness, not the result we’re all hoping for.

What does make us happy? And what is happiness? Well, it’s a wide-ranging question with a lot of different answers. Some might think it’s too wide-ranging to even consider. I know when I thought about producing a series on it, I was a little bit bewildered about where to begin. But as I studied it more, it became clear to me.

There are some very specific things we can talk about related to happiness. And we’re going to do that in this series. But first, let’s look at a clear definition of it before we get in too deeply. I found this definition on a Website called This Emotional Life. “Happiness is thought of as the good life, freedom from suffering, flourishing, well-being, joy, prosperity and pleasure.” The site also noted: “It’s pursuit is enshrined as a fundamental right in the United States and occupies most of us.” So the founding fathers found happiness as a worthwhile goal among the other things.

I was thinking about a mentor of mine – I was talking to her one day – hadn’t seen her in awhile. I said, “Hi Julie, what are you doing these days?” And she said, “I’m just trying to build the perfect little life for myself.” So that was her way of saying that she was pursuing happiness. And that was the byproduct of the way she lived her life.

What does the Bible say about happiness? We probably should start there, since this is a Christian endeavor. We find in the Bible Greek and Hebrew words for happiness. And words associated with them tell us a lot about what the Bible position on happiness is. Some of those words are blessed, satisfied, protected, prosperity, established, solid, healthy, rejoicing, right living. Blessed and happy is the man who does never walk astray. Let’s look at the scripture that that song comes from. It’s in Psalms 1, the first three verses.

Psalms 1:1-3 – Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, not sits in the seat of scoffers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

He’s unmovable. To extrapolate a bit, the Bible position is that happiness also is a byproduct of right living and a good relationship with God, rather than a goal to seek of itself. If we obey God, if we serve God, that aligns us with the nature of the universe and life. We are then in accord with it and things will just go better for us naturally. And there are also plenty of examples for us in the Bible where God intervened directly and blessed people.

It’s also biblical that it’s not good for us to be happy all the time. When I look back at my life, when I’ve been the most happy, I was also learning the least. I was just enjoying the feeling of the benefits of obeying God and things were going well. But when I’ve been unhappy, because of some foolish mistake or trial, I’ve learned the most. I grew the most during those times. So, like Solomon said, “There is a time for everything.” There’s a time to be happy and there’s a time to be anxious and frustrated and unhappy. I like being happy, but God is more concerned with perfecting me than He is with my happiness. And He has a long way to go with that, so I expect I’m not going to be happy for long periods of time.

Think about Job. He was a rich man and God even said he was a righteous man – a good man – but he needed to learn some things. So, in the story, God drew the devil’s attention to Job. And He allowed the devil to take everything, except his life, away from him – his wealth, his family, his health. Once Job learned what he needed to learn, God gave him back twice as much as he had before. We might say, “Yes, but his children all died.” Yes, and Job was the man who said, “I know that my Redeemer lives and in the latter day, He will stand on the earth. And after I die, yet in my flesh, I shall see God.” So he had this hope also for his deceased children. He saw the big picture that God provides us. He knew that he was offered a free ticket through life and that he would have to suffer if he was ever going to live eternally with God. So he saw that big picture. His first daughter – born after his trial – he and his wife named Jemima. Do you know what that word means – that name? There are two definitions that crop up. One is turtledove or affectionate. She apparently was close to him. And, if that was true, then her life certainly was restorative to him. And the second meaning for that name can be the day. What day do you suppose that might mean? Could it possibly mean that through his loving child, Job was looking to the day when he would have all his children with him? I like to think that. It makes me happy.

Now let’s look at what science has to say about happiness. I’m happy to say, as always, good science supports the biblical position. So let’s see what we can find. The research I read also came from that Website, but came from a psychologist named Martin Seligman, who was the head of the American Psychological Association, I believe. He’s one of the main researchers of what is called positive psychology. And he says, “Happiness can be seen in three parts: one, pleasure; two, engagement; and three, meaning.” Pleasure is the feel good part. We all are familiar with that. Engagement refers to living a good life, having family, friends, interests – you know, involvement. And meaning is about contributing to a larger purpose – very important. Seligman says, “Pleasure is important, but meaning and engagement are even more so.” Anyone have any problems with that? It’s just what the Bible teaches us, isn’t it?

I also learned who’s happy and who isn’t. Men or women – who’s happier? What do you think? Well, women used to be happier, but now men are. People with money enough to get by are happier than those who are poor, but beyond that, money doesn’t make us happier. You know all the people who are just barely getting by, and you think of all the people driving the Cadillacs and Hummers and all that, they’re not any happier than you are on average. People from in-tact families are happier than from divorced families. You know, there are so many divorces and there are so many of us from divorced families – that is somewhat uncomfortable for some of us – but, you know, God says not to commit adultery and to stay married for a reason. Middle-aged and seniors are happier than younger people. And that’s not about just this generation of older people. It’s across the board. Younger people are, generally – down through the ages – more angry and anxious than older people are. People who go to church are happier than those who don’t. People with strong ties of family and friends are happier than those without. Here’s one you’ll like. Republicans are happier than Democrats. Conservatives are happier than liberals. Married people are happier. Optimistic people are happier. People with a solid sense of self are happier. And extroverts are happier than introverts. That’s what the research shows.

Researchers have also distinguished between short-term and long-term happiness. We can feel happy about scoring a goal in the air hockey game with our kid and we can also think about our life overall as happy or unhappy. Guess which one is more important according to the Bible? Right. The long-term – going for the long-term payoff of eternal life.

Anything we have to put up with in this life is all going to be worth it a millions times over. So long-term happiness is more important.

There are three sources of happiness, according to what this research tells us. Genetics – that would be your temperament and personality. You know, some people are just kind of grumpy by nature and other people are more outgoing and happy. So there are genetics. Life-circumstances – you know some people…I was talking to a lady in my practice… she’s a young lady – twenty-four – she has an identical twin – not identical – fraternal – sorry. She said her twin can eat anything she wants and never pays the price, whereas she had to be very careful about her diet – there’s the genetic thing there, right? So that plays into it. But when we’re healthy, we can be happy and when we’re sick and in pain, we’re not. Some people inherit enough money that they can live without having to worry about money for the rest of their lives. So that’s a life-circumstance. And then, the third thing – there are genetics, life-circumstances and now the third thing – is our own choices. Researchers have discovered that we tend to overestimate the importance of life- circumstances and how happy we are. If only we could win the lottery, or have more money, or have a better job, or if we could only fall in love, then we would be happy. We sometimes underestimate how much control we have over our own happiness. Genetics account for fifty percent of our mood. Life-circumstance is ten! And free-will – the choices we make – has to do with forty percent!

I was talking to a depressed client some time ago. She lost her job and was telling me that she felt overwhelmed. She also just got out of jail for meth charges and was on probation. While she was in jail, she gained a lot of weight. She had to move in with her parents. She would have to get all of her stuff out of her storage unit by tomorrow or pay another month’s rent, which she didn’t have. She said, “I just can’t do it all!” And the list went on from there. And after she kind of wound down, I said, “Well, what are you doing after you leave here?” And she said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Well, okay, you’re not working, so why don’t you stop by your storage unit – even though you don’t feel like it – and just take one load to your parents’ house? You’re going there anyway, right?” She said, “Yeah, and it’s on the way.” “So that would be one less load for tomorrow, wouldn’t it?” She said, “Well, I don’t want to. I don’t feel like it, but I will.” So the next day she came back and she was much less depressed. She was much happier. I said, “What’s happened to you? You’re so cheerful!” And she said, “Well, I did like you said. I took a load of stuff from the storage unit to my house. And when I got done, it was so early, I did a second load. And then I just went back and got all of it. And after I got the last load home, I was going to go to my sister’s house, because I was feeling so up. And on the way there, I stopped for gas, and there was an elderly lady at the gas station whose car had broken down. She had to walk several blocks to get to the station. She’d been shopping and all her food was in her car and she was afraid it was going to spoil. So I went to her car, loaded up her food, took her to her house, and brought her back to the car and stayed with her until the tow truck came. And I felt really good after that.”

So what can we learn from that? Well, there are a lot of things we can learn. Choice has a lot to do with our mood, for one thing. Learned helplessness is a big part of unhappiness and she was feeling beat down and helpless, but once she was challenged to take steps on her own behalf, she found out she was able to do that. Anytime we can take positive action to get control of challenging circumstances, we are going to feel better. Here’s something else that we can learn from that. Some addicts are kind-hearted. Why would I say that? Well, because being less judgmental of others makes us happier – looking for the good, right?

This next section I’m going to call “looking in the wrong places.” Here’s a quote from the Website again: “Chasing and achieving wealth, fame and good looks make actually make us less happy.” Did you hear that? “Researchers asked young adults for two years after graduation from college what they wanted in life and categorized the answers as intrinsic and extrinsic. They also asked the young people how much progress they had made toward their goals and asked them to rate their well-being and happiness. The researchers found that young adults who valued intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, close relationships, and community involvement were more satisfied with their lives than those who had extrinsic goals, such as wealth and achieving the ‘look I’ve been after.’ Even young people who had achieved their extrinsic goals reported more negative emotions, like shame and anger, and more physical ailments, and less satisfaction with life. It seems that happiness really does come from within.”

Now here’s another thing that we should talk about. We all have a baseline level of happiness. And that probably has a lot to do with our genetics, but we can change that by making good choices. Forty percent of our happiness can come from the choices we make.
One of the choices researchers have identified is focusing on positive emotions. Here some that they’ve listed in the Emotional Life site: gratitude, serenity, joy, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. It reminds me of something Paul said in Philippians 4:8.

Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

There is a time to think about problems – that’s how they fixed – but most of the time, if we focus on positives, we will be inspired to go forward instead of sinking back into discouragement about our problems.

Most of the folks that come to my office have been beaten down by life. They will only respond to treatment once they have hope that they can feel better and once they believe that they are capable of feeling better.

I had a woman in my office once whose eleven-year-old daughter committed suicide – hung herself in the garage – on Mothers’ Day. A year into her therapy, she was looking back and she told me the only reason I didn’t kill myself was because you were so sure I could get past it. Job one was to instill hope, not to fix problems. Nothing’s going to happen unless there is hope of getting better.

In all my reading for this series, I haven’t found anything in the scientific literature that contradicts the Bible. It’s just amazing. And I might add, once again, because it’s always that way. Good research – it always squares with the Bible, because the Bible is the foundation of it all.

Now that we’ve defined what happiness is and learned a little bit about some of the research that is going on about it, in this series, first, we’re going to look at the important areas of life – the areas of engagement and meaning. We have to get that right before anything else can happen. And then we’re going to look at the forty percent that we have control over in our own lives to see what we can do.

Well, that’s it for today. Check back in two week for the next in this series. That’s going to be on Happiness through Contribution, Work, Mission and Service. We hope to see you then.