If you’re ever going to be happy, it may be when you’re 58 years old. That’s the finding of a study conducted last year by Happify, a website and app that develops games and activities based on scientific research into happiness. So if you’re younger than 58, it’s something to look forward to. But if you’re older than 58 don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’ve missed out. Researchers are finding that happiness tends to increase as you age beyond 58.
Not surprisingly, there are lots of qualifiers on such conclusions. First, the research is talking about an average age when happiness seems to really take hold, and second, personal troubles can obviously override happiness at any age.
These qualifiers notwithstanding, it’s not a bad thing to know that your happiest years may be still to come. In fact the research shows that happy people seem to live longer— seven and a half years longer on average. But regardless of your age, if you’re not as happy as you’d like to be, self-help books and sites like Happify are ready to tell you how to increase your overall happiness. The problem though is less individually and more culturally. Our culture seems to send the message that we are not allowed to be happy.
When asked, “How are you?” rarely do we hear people say, “I’m so happy!” Instead we hear, “I’m fine.” Or, “Don’t ask.” Or my favorite, and I get this one a lot as a pastor, “Well since you asked, let me tell you about the crap storm that is my life!” It’s almost as if it’s a contest or a badge of honor to be the least happy person in the world.
But let’s say we are feeling pretty good—happy—we don’t dare let anyone know because then we are made to feel guilty that we are. Tell someone you’re happy and you get a snarky, “Well I’m glad somebody is.” Or, again my favorite, “Well what bank did you rob or who did you kill to be so happy?!” The implication of course being that we must have done something grim and heinous in order to be happy.
We are not allowed to be happy anymore. But the Apostle Paul would disagree. And so should we.
Now culturally speaking we have found a way to kind of side step the whole “not allowed to be happy” myth. We say, “Don’t worry about finding happiness, instead find joy.” Happiness is too self-centered, but joy is more holistic. I mean we’ve all heard sermons, perhaps based on this text from Philippians, where the difference between happiness and joy is carefully delineated.
Joy, we say, is a kind of gladness in the Lord that’s not dependent on fluctuating circumstances of our life. Paul even says joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit. Happiness, on the other hand, most say, is a condition tied to our circumstances, which can be good or bad, and is thus a fleeting objective. That’s how our culture usually spells out Happiness.
But, perhaps we haven’t read our Bibles carefully enough, because the Scriptures are far from being down on happiness. In fact, the Bible flaunts it—and I’ll show you how.
The word often translated in our English Bibles as “blessed” can just as correctly be— and sometimes is— translated as “happy.” For centuries, church theologians, including such notables as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, wrote in praise of happiness, considering it a “blessing from God on the righteous.” These guys didn’t differentiate joy from happiness. They saw happiness as divine blessing—not circumstantial.
So when did we shift from being happy about being happy, to being down on being happy? Well, it probably began with the Protestant Reformation. The early reformers were wary of scholasticism, so they weren’t too keen on the teachings of Aquinas. Even more, the reformers’ theology started not with creation but with the fall of humankind, so there’s this element of guilt that gets factored in.
Ellen Charry, professor of historical and systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes, “Protestants became preoccupied with finding a solution to the paralyzing fear produced by their belief in God’s justifiable wrath about human sinfulness that began with the fall. Consequently, the happiness the reformers sought was relief from anxiety before God, rather than life satisfaction.”
This is to say, that life may have stunk for our early forbearers, but they found contentment in knowing that at least they weren’t going to hell. Still though, in such a context, working for personal happiness became something Christians learned to despise. But thank God for Joseph Butler and John Wesley! In the 18th century, some theologians— notably the Anglican Joseph Butler and the Methodist John Wesley— began promoting happiness as a legitimate goal for Christians—and they made a great case for such.
Wesley understood the Bible to say that the way to be happy was to be holy. And Butler said that Christians can find pleasure in doing the things that our faith calls us to do. All this is to say, that according to these theologians, happiness is a feeling that comes from holiness and faithfulness, which is anything that pleases God.
Wesleyan scholar Sarah Heaner-Lancaster interprets John Wesley’s theology this way, saying: “Wesley shows us that when our lives fit the way God wants us to be, we are happy in three senses. One, we have a life that can be evaluated as good and upright. Two, we are personally and deeply satisfied. And three, we are suited to reflect God.”
So that’s how to live happy—craft a life that is good and upright, have personal and deep satisfaction, and reflect God through word and deed. Do those things, says John Wesley, and you will be living happy.
Ok, so we have the formula for living happy. If you’ve been serious about living your faith, you probably have some sense about where you are with the first and third of that Wesleyan formula: You have some sense of whether your life can be evaluated as good and upright, and whether or not you reflect God. But that other one—that you are personally and deeply satisfied—that may be where we struggle the most because being personally and deeply satisfied is hard. Especially in our culture that says enough is never enough—get more—be more. Such thinking never allows us to ever be satisfied. So how do we get at this one?
Well, let’s do another biblical word study, because far better than any self-help book is God’s word. Not that self-help books are bad. Not at all.
The Hebrew word rendered in English as happiness/blessedness is: asher. The Greek word for the same is: makarios. Their meanings are similar, but Bible translators can’t agree on using either happy or blessed because there is no single English word that fully translates the Hebrew and Greek words.
Therefore, to understand what the Bible means by these words, we have to think of both “happy”—the feeling of satisfaction, and “blessed”— recognizing God’s abundance, together. And when we do, we are in the best position to feel satisfied with our life that is immersed in God’s abundance. The pursuit of happiness is a Godly activity. But to know happiness in its fullness, means we must keep God in the equation.
Now the fact that I just dropped a lot of nerdy, theological-lexicon-speak on you is not lost on me. I read my sermon again and again and even I was glazing over at that word study stuff. So let’s look at this another way, using a familiar story we all know and love—the story of the Good Samaritan.
When the Good Samaritan helped the injured man by the road, his help was certainly good and upright; and it reflected God. But certainly the Samaritan must have also felt satisfied about what he had done. He no doubt experienced the satisfaction that comes when we really help someone in need.
And as a result of his actions, the Samaritan was happy in all three senses that Wesley identified—being good and upright, reflecting God, and experiencing deep satisfaction for having done what he did. What the Good Samaritan did, led him to true happiness.
But let’s go further with this story. The two men who passed by the injured man without helping—the Levite and priest—almost certainly did not arrive at their destination as happy men. They had obviously come up with some sort of justification for their decision to pass by on the other side of the road, but such justifications never yield true happiness.
Justification to “not do good”, to not help and love, may be just, but such justification only supports selfishness. Our justifications, our reasons for not helping, never result in a feeling of full and complete satisfaction and happiness.
The Apostle Paul would disagree with our culture today that seems to believe you shouldn’t be happy. I believe he would even disagree with the people of Happify who say we aren’t going to be happy until we’re 58 years old.
When Paul told the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he wasn’t recommending a worshipful ritual, but instead he was urging his readers to strive to feel the genuine delight that comes from living in Godly ways.
Now certainly such ways come out in force at Christmas. But let’s use Christmas not just as the time of the year when we do them, but as a warm-up to doing them all year long. Such a way of life will not only lead us to happy living, but it will most assuredly lead to others living happy. And in our world today, the more people living happy, the better. Amen.