Happiness is an R-rated theme. Word on the street says is actually for kids, for naïve, simplistic folks who buy into easy steps and who have not yet bumped against the complexities of life.
I disagree. Happiness is a serious, vital theme, and not only for the obvious reason that we all want to be happy. It is a theme begging Christian reflection because this magnetic word also holds within itself a whole cosmos: our understanding of happiness is our understanding of life. It is a token of our soul, a window into our worldview, the surest sign of what we prize and what we live for.
And, if I may confess, I’ve been rather unhappy about our current understandings of happiness. Someone reflecting on happiness today not only feels dumbed down–buy this product, get this gorgeous, follow the seven magical steps–but, and here I get really worked up, there seems to be no real Christian alternative. Christians have just bought into our consumer societies’ commercial definition of happiness without thinking it through critically, and just substitute the self-help steps to happiness with Christian terminology. Rough edges are smoothed and spiritual language is sprinkled, but the approach is still the same self-centered, self-serving approach.
So I went on an experiment. Could there be an alternative Christian understanding of happiness? Could this understanding be not isolated from, but actually spring out of our core beliefs about reality–Jesus is Lord, his cross offers life, to follow Jesus is best of paths? And could this alternative be not just well-meaning but be really happy, happier than any other alternative?
It was a fascinating experiment. I went back to Jesus and to what I felt is his key insight on life–that we gain life when we lose life, and that we do so when we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him–and the result of that reflection is a book coming out this week, The Paradox of Happiness. And with this book comes a wish: I hope it helps people think about happiness in a distinctively Christian way, and have lives more serene and joyous because they are actually less self-oriented and self-centered. Because they long to contribute, love, and give more than they want to get. It is a wish also that people may be in wonder with the genius of Jesus’ vision of life and that they be more willing to follow this Jesus, even if his path is a cruciform one. In the end, I would love if folks come out of the book less worried about their own happiness, and so find themselves, paradoxically, happier than before.
We don’t find happiness when we try to fulfill our desires—we find it when we stop looking for it and start focusing on serving others. Happiness according to Jesus is generous and unexpected: by letting go, we find; by giving, we receive. Happy are those who share their happiness.