Christianity: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Meaning”

Deutsch: Viktor Frankl
Deutsch: Viktor Frankl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 The Atlantic Monthly has a great article, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article is AVAILABLE HERE.

It points out what has been known for a long time (including Victor Frankl‘s observations from his time in a WWII Concentration Camp, as described in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning“), People find more life satisfaction in living a meaningful life than in living a happy life.

This makes sense to me. I am melancholic by temperament. I am basically satisfied with life but I certainly would not describe myself as a “happy’ person, or a ‘joyful” person (“joy” is essentially the word that Christians like to use instead of “happy” because it sounds more spiritual), or a “victorious living” person. I find meaning in my life. I feel that in some small (perhaps very small) way, I am fulfilling my purpose and am making the world a better place.

Many parents say, “All I want for my children is that they be happy.” But let me suggest something better. “All I want for my children is that they find meaning in their life, and understand their place in God’s creation.

Drugs, sex, crime, violence… many things can make a person happy. Almost anything today seems to be justified with the basic statement, “But it makes me happy.”

Is it better to have meaning? Is it better to have purpose? Quoting a brief bit from the article,

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”

Perhaps we need to change our own goals. Perhaps we need to change how we parent. Perhaps we need to change how we do ministry?

Many in ministry try to market a ‘happy” Christianity. Church services are relabelled as “Celebrations.” Focus is often on Victory and Prosperity. Perhaps Rick Warren has a point with the “Purpose-Driven Life” and the “Purpose-Driven Church.” But maybe we need to work more on helping people find their purpose… that might be different from others. Maybe “abundant life” has more to do with life satisfaction and purpose than it does with being happy.

So maybe in ministry we can adjust a famous quote from  the American Declaration of Independence:

  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (mankind) are created equal (by God and before God), that they are endowed by their Creator (Designer) with certain inalienable (God-given) rights, that among these are (eternal and abundant) life, liberty (in Christ) and the pursuit of happiness their unique meaning and purpose.

 

 

 

The Happy Missionary?

I have heard so many sermons stating that happiness is not something the Christians should seek, but rather, they should seek “joy”.  “Joy” is described as feeling good based on some sort of spiritual empowerment that transcends one’s momentary circumstances. “Happiness” is looked upon as feeling good because good things are happening. But maybe both definitions are incomplete. The definition for happiness lays too much strength on the NOW… the moment. Happiness is a brief upturn in an overall pointless rollercoaster ride. The definition for joy seems to be more of a Greek philosophical ideal rather than a Christian virtue. Joy is a disconnected abstract state of being. A lot of people who claim to have Christian joy sure LOOK unhappy much or most of the time.

So it was good that a group that calls itself the “Happiness Foundation” (www.happiness.org) provided a definition of happiness that appears to bridge the gap.

Happiness: The overall appreciation of one’s life-as-a-whole. In other words, how much one likes the life one lives.

The definition looks at one’s emotional state and well-being over a broad spectrum and time of one’s life. Therefore it does not fail by focusing on the momentary successes and failures that fill any particular day. On the other hand, it still is connected to the life we live. Additionally, it is perceptual. If you feel happy, it is pointless for someone to say “Oh, but deep down you are miserable.” Perhaps deep down you ARE miserable, but happiness describes a state that is recognizable by the individual.

Looking at the definition above, it seems as if one could use this definition for  “CONTENTMENT” or “SATISFACTION” as well. These terms might be used interchangeably. But an important question lingers:

Is it good to happy? Is it good to be content? Is it good to be satisfied?

1.  First Challenge.  Maybe happiness is self-absorbed… lacking concern for the misery around us??

We have certainly seen people around us who live their lives looking for the next thrill, the next adrenaline rush. They live their lives in seeming disregard of the concerns of others. But momentary thrill is not happiness/contentedness. Quoting from the happy people at the Happiness Foundation again,

“Most people feel that it is good to be happy but many moral philosophers have reservations. One of their qualms is that one can only be happy if one disregards the misery in this world, and hence that happiness depends on a distorted rosy outlook. Another misgiving is that happiness spoils and makes us lazy, uncritical and egocentric. Yet again, empirical research shows otherwise. Happy people appear to be more concerned with social problems and to be more apt to do something about that. There is also evidence that happiness activates and that it encourages social involvement.”

2. Second Challenge. Happiness is anti-progress??

Americans believe in progress. It is not surprising that Americans aren’t all that excited about Contentment. That is because many believe that change is fueled by discontent. However, discontent is not necessarily a good motivation for positive change. Discontent is more likely to lead to

  • Greed
  • Covetousness
  • Envy
  • Spiritual Compromise
  • Moral Failure
  • Anger
  • Quitting

Properly focused contentment leads to progress. Imagine you are a painter or a sculptor. You work on your piece of art until you are happy with it, satisfied, contented. Then you stop, set it aside and begin on a new one. Contentment should motivate one to be pleased enough to start anew. Discontentment/ unhappiness is more likely to cause one never complete a task, or simply give up.

God is a good example of wise contentment, of wise happiness. In Genesis 1 we see the mind of God. A pattern forms:

  • God spoke
  • God created
  • God was happy (contented/satisfied)
  • God repeats the pattern

3.  Third Challenge. Happiness (or contentment) is not Christian??

This is a big question. Is it good to be happy? It might be enjoyable, but is it a worthy goal? This is something to be left up to each individual reader. However, here are a few verses to think about:

  •      God modeled contentment/happiness        Genesis 1
  •      God gives contentment/happiness as a gift      Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 5:18-6:2
  •      Contentment/happiness  is considered to be a virtue             Phil 4:11-13
  •      Contentment/happiness It is considered to be beneficial    I Timothy 6:6

The conclusion to this matter is in the theme of Ecclesiastes. Fear God and enjoy the life you live. Or as Paul said in I Timothy 6:6, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” Both writers make it clear that happiness or contentment is not an inherent good, but is good when combined with godliness.

If the premise that a happy Christian is following God’s example, and makes he or she more effective… then we need more happy Christians. Better yet… Christians (and missionaries) need to learn to be happy by what should make us happy.

<CAUTION:  Nothing in the above post should be construed as suggesting that I accept ANY form of “Prosperity Doctrine” (a self-serving odd collection of beliefs eisegetically “drawn” from proof-texts from less than half of the Bible). I would be most UNHAPPY if this article would so misinterpreted.  Okay, you can join the real world now.>