What's so suspicious about happiness?

by Kirsty Birkett


There are a lot of things we know that we ought to be, things that the New Testament exhorts us to be. Loving, unselfish, kind, peaceful, patient… Equally, there are a lot of things we ought not to be. Selfish, conceited, quarrelsome, slanderous, vengeful…

Should we be happy?

Is it even possible to be happy in this world?

Or perhaps more to the point: are we allowed to be happy? Are we allowed to try to be happy?

We all want happiness; let’s face it. But there seem to be all sorts of difficulties involved in achieving it. For some people it just seems to happen, and that’s lovely; but there’s also a lot of general wisdom and advice out there against trying to achieve it. There are a number of reasons I’ve heard for this kind of attitude:

  1. We’re not in the new creation yet. This world, here, is a fallen world. It’s not perfect. We are here preparing for Jesus’ return, and that is when we will be happy. In the meantime, put up with suffering, because that’s just the way the world is.
  2. Seeking happiness for yourself is just, well, selfish. We’re not here to be happy; we’re here to help others. We’re here to serve, not to be served. Seeking happiness is fundamentally self-centred, perhaps even self-absorbed. How can you look out for other people if you’re concentrating on feeling good yourself?
  3. In any case, those who look for happiness never find it. It only comes as a side-effect of other things. As soon as you run towards it, it recedes.
  4. Moreover, is happiness really what we want? Surely that’s just a temporary, frothy emotion. Real satisfaction with life comes from something much deeper.

These are strong criticisms. Taken seriously, they would seem to rule out both the morality and the possibility of finding happiness in this life, except accidentally. Well, perhaps that’s the way the world is. That’s certainly the conclusion I accepted for many years, and there is some practicality in it: after all, we will all suffer loss and experience pain; we will all eventually grow old and die.

Yet is that the end of the matter? I have slowly come around to another way of thinking. While there is a level of truth in all the objections above, I think they all suffer from a certain confusion as well, which when understood makes them not really objections at all. That is: they all confuse what happiness is with what happiness is caused by.

It’s a common confusion. There’s an ad on British television at the moment (I think it’s for insurance) that says at the beginning something like: “Happiness is having no worries on the horizon.” There are many similar sayings:

  • Happiness is a warm hug
  • Happiness is the sound of children’s laughter
  • Happiness is a hot cup of tea when it’s raining outside
  • Happiness is knowing you’re loved

…and so on. It is a common trope. Yet none of these sayings actually tells us what happiness is. They just tell us what, for the speaker, causes happiness.

What is the difference? It is the difference between the definition of happiness and the reasons for happiness. Well, what is the definition of happiness? That is not so easy a question. When we get into the serious business of defining what happiness is, there are all sorts of complications. For the moment, let us say that, at least in part, happiness is a state of positive emotion. It may be experienced for a short time or a long time, and there are all sorts of subtleties we may like to add about the difference between emotions and moods or attitudes and so on. But at least we can say that it is positive and it has something to do with how we feel.

This state, however, can be caused by all sorts of different things.

  • Alcohol
  • A pleasant sensation
  • A great achievement in life
  • Family time
  • Being in love
  • Getting lost in a good book
  • Playing — or watching — a football match
  • Contemplating a painting
  • Hearing a magnificent sonata
  • Hearing a catchy tune

All of these things can cause a positive emotional state. The states may differ in degree and duration, but the state itself is not the same as the thing that caused it. Nonetheless, the quality of the emotional state, not to mention its duration, can be strongly influenced by what causes it.

For instance, alcohol can make you feel great. For a time. Then it goes away. Listening to music is known to make people feel happy — it’s a common tool for adjusting emotions under laboratory conditions so that experiments can be done on the nature of happiness. It works. However, it doesn’t last beyond, say, a few hours at most. Other things may cause deeper and more enduring happiness.

That, indeed, is the key, and the reason why our four objections at the start are not necessarily valid.

If your happiness is caused by, or depends upon, say, having a lot of money, then it may be that your happiness is very selfish. Certainly seeking happiness by working to get a lot of money for yourself is very likely to make you self-centred and greedy. If your happiness comes from something less selfish, however — such as, say, seeing your family grow up healthy and sane — then you’ll be pursuing happiness in doing something selfless.

Also, if your happiness depends on something temporal and temporary, or something changeable and insecure, then your happiness will also be those things. If your happiness is based on things only in this world, then it may well be only fleeting and elusive. The secret of always being happy, then, must be to make sure that what makes you happy is something that is always true.

Some things, even in this world, are more lasting and profound than others. Loving and noble things, just and beautiful things. It is no surprise that these are the things that surveys report make people the most happy — friendship, family, projects that achieve something lasting, contemplation of great art or great literature. Not money or possessions or celebrity. The things that make you look beyond yourself and beyond your immediate circumstances — these are the things that create happiness that is more than just fleeting and fluffy.

Yet even those things will not last forever. Friendships fail, families break up, projects are frustrated, even great art decays. Any of these things can happen at any time, and sometimes the fear of it is enough to destroy the happiness they bring.

So the best happiness — the way of being truly, lastingly, and ethically happy — must be the happiness caused by what is eternal. The trouble is, they are not the things that, for most of us, normally make us happy. If we could just turn ourselves around so that the things that are eternal and always true — God’s love, his gift of salvation, the hope of a new creation — genuinely make us happy. Not just certain in knowledge, but emotionally, joyfully, happy. That is the kind of happiness that can last even when friendships and families fail, even in the face of injustice and suffering and persecution.

Fine — but how do we do it? It’s hard work, but it is possible. It requires perseverance, concentration, determination, prayer, and much grace. There is much more to say, but I’ve said enough for now.

Kirsty Birkett is a Latimer Research Fellow and tutor in ethics and philosophy at Oak Hill Theological College.