I have begun reading the book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks” by Ruth Whippman. The fly leaf of the book says this: “What (Whippman) found was a paradox: Despite the fact that Americans spend more time and money in search of happiness than any other people on earth, research shows that the United States is one of the least contented, most anxious countries in the developed world.”
I have nothing against people doing things to make them happy, but it strikes me that the fundamental problem is that Americans have made “the pursuit of happiness” the goal of life. From a biblical perspective, the goal of life is not happiness, but a quality of life that the Bible describes as “eternal”, or we might say lasting, enduring, deep. In Luke’s Gospel (10:25-37), the lawyer doesn’t ask Jesus what he must do to be happy. He asks him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer: love God and neighbor.
What then becomes clear in the Bible is that eternal life is not the same thing as happiness. Loving God and neighbor may bring suffering, boredom, disappointment, frustration, and heartache. Jeremiah loved God intensely, but also experienced despair. In fact, his connection to God made him experience the pain God feels when God’s people mistreat each other. We wouldn’t describe Jeremiah as happy. After reading one of the Gospels, we wouldn’t describe Jesus as a happy either. We would describe him as faithful to God, upset with the leaders of his day, and compassionate toward those who are suffering. We would also describe him as someone who experienced sadness when he looked at the injustice all around him. We even find him in despair on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In the Bible, real, enduring, lasting life is discovered as we live out our connection to God and others in all its messiness and wide range of emotional states. Therefore, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that connection to others is also what Whippman found to be the key to happiness. In a brief video on her website, she claims that her research indicates that there is one single overwhelming factor that influences our happiness and that is our social connections. All the happiness seminars, practices and theories that people think will make them happy don’t deliver. At the end of the day, what makes people happy are there connections with other people.
Whether your life is governed by “the pursuit of happiness” or you are committed to loving God and neighbor, connections with other people are key. As we begin our observance of Advent this Sunday—a season of longing—are you longing for a more connected life? And are you willing to do what is necessary for that to happen?
A good place to begin would be your primary relationships. It is so easy for work and other activities to consume our lives. Can we carve out time to be with our spouse, kids and friends? What about a weekly meal (a rather low bar I know) unencumbered with the rush to homework, after hours work, or one more sports practice? If we can do it at least once per week, maybe we will long to do it more often because it feeds us.
And what about expanding your circle every so often? Every Wednesday, 6:30—8:00pm at St. Timothy’s people gather with immigrants who are learning to speak English and simply have casual conversations. As people sit down at tables and begin to speak with each other, you can feel the energy. You have a quick feeling that this is what life is all about. And yes, they all look very happy