Are You Happy Now?
One of the regular features in a newsweekly magazine to which I’m subscribed is a small department that includes one-paragraph synopses of relatively lesser moment. These are reports of events and issues, usually, that do not have the grave significance of the more comprehensive update and commentary of world events. Instead, they are included in a more casual appeal to the reader’s idle curiosities, to what journalists call “human interest.”
This feature is divided into three items each under “Good week for . . .” or “Bad week for. . . .” And, though of much lesser significance than the usual diplomacy, politics, terrorism, etc., they often may still bring for the reader some further thought.
One week’s issue included two items that were curiously related. The very first was reported as a “Good week for atheists, who are just as happy overall as those with strong religious faith.”1 This conclusion was based on data from 24 countries in a University of Cologne “meta-analysis,” in which “both groups [reported] high degrees of satisfaction, while the ‘weakly religious’ were the least happy.”2
The very last of the six items was: “Bad week for . . . the grouchy.” Here was reported newly installed AI technology at Canon, the giant Japanese camera company, that now registers, through facial recognition, whether employees entering meeting rooms are smiling—or not. In this way, the company says it is hoping to encourage a happier atmosphere.
Either of these items—“good week” or “bad week”— suggests all kinds of questions, some of them possibly snarky.
But they also may bring to mind the more basic, almost existential, human quest for happiness. Evolutionists would probably trace this human sense of something beyond mere fulfillment back to the time of a warm fireside in a cave safe from saber-toothed threat.
But since then, certainly every culture has expressed in its creativity the quest for the “happily ever after.” We wish one another “Happy Birthday,” “Happy New Year,” “Happy Anniversary,” “Happy Sabbath!” Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t worry, be happy!” Disneyland has proclaimed itself since 1955 as “the happiest place on earth.” And there is that bold, stirring assertion in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 that “the pursuit of happiness” is an “unalienable right.”
Dr. Francine G. Patterson, beginning in the 1970s, conducted some interesting research of the intelligence of a lowland gorilla that was brought up from infancy learning American sign language. This animal, nicknamed “Koko,” was the subject of magazine articles, books, and TV documentaries. In one instance, Koko was asked the difference between herself and human beings. “Koko good,” she replied by sign, “people frown sometimes.” Even to this primate, the human struggle for happiness was very apparent.
Interestingly, happiness has actually come to the attention of science. Beginning in the 1980s, at the University of Illinois, Robert Diener soon became known as a leader in the scientific measurement of happiness. Though there may be some question about how science, a field that claims to base its information on only what is empirical, can expect to measure something as subjective or abstract as happiness, it has still undertaken this project.
Even the definition of happiness itself is a challenge. In his research, Diener came to define happiness as “subjective well-being.” His first interest in the subject seems to have occurred while he was studying psychology in 1968, when he proposed a research project on happiness in migrant farmworkers, but his professor turned it down, saying that happiness could not be measured. His research, through the years since, however, has found that money does bring happiness to a certain extent; genetics and culture influence well-being; and strong social connection encourages happiness. “Studying happiness ‘sounds flaky,’ he admitted, but subjective well-being is about ‘much more than having fun.’”3
The state of happiness truly is so much more than having fun—or even an absence of things disagreeable. Scripture implies that it has a spiritual quality as well. From what is known as the wisdom literature, comes: “Happy are the people whose God is the Lord!” (Ps. 144:15, NKJV); “Happy is he who keeps the law” (Prov. 29:18, NKJV).
And, in the opening to His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself addressed happiness in His own way through His Beatitudes. Translating “happy” for “blessed,” as many Bible commentators do, the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 should be read as promises of happiness for those who endure every kind of human suffering. In a way, they offer a future of spiritual “happily ever after”: “‘[Happy] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’” (vs. 3, NIV); “‘[Happy] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’” (vs. 4, NIV); “‘[Happy] are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’” (vs. 10, NIV).
The meaning of happiness, however, like so many other human qualities, has been corrupted in a world of sin. “We are half-hearted creatures,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”4
Happiness, by Jesus’ definition as He spoke of it in the Beatitudes—and the Bible describes it throughout Scripture—is not mere pleasure, nor is it the achievement of some effort toward human fulfillment. Ellen G. White wrote something very resonant with that of Lewis: “True happiness is found, not in the indulgence of pride and luxury, but in communion with God through His created works. If men would give less attention to the artificial and would cultivate greater simplicity, they would come far nearer to answering the purpose of God in their creation.”5
Happiness connotes more of “joy,” in its ultimate—and its simplest—meaning. It is less about being pleased than it is about “infinite joy,” a spiritual comfort experienced in the original relationship with our Creator that He intended from the very beginning. “Happy are the people whose God is the Lord!” (Ps. 144:15, NKJV).