The Problem with Happiness

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/31/2013

The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer said: All utopian ideals end up being cruel in the end, because they can never be fulfilled. Happiness can be an example.

Steel Magnolias (Sally Fields): “I just want you to be happy.”

It’s a very predictable thing for her to say and an interesting commentary on our culture. Where there’s such an emphasis, the goal of life, is on happiness—personal fulfillment and affluence. That’s the goal of life. And all our efforts are bent towards that. It’s the desire of every parent, and my own parents, as well: “Well, as long as you are happy.”

What that does, I think, is it sets up an artificial goal that I would consider inappropriate. I think it’s one of the most meaningless of all goals, pursuing happiness, because there are other values that are much more important. As a matter of fact I’m not entirely convinced that happiness is something that can be attained by pursuing it.

A colleague is writing a book entitled Happiness is a Serious Problem. The title makes a very significant point.

The problem is that it sets us up. Unhappiness becomes something that is abnormal. It’s a falling short of a critical ideal. The phrase then, “As Long as you’re happy” becomes not just a goal but a requirement for successful living, a requirement that breeds guilt if it’s not fulfilled—“What’s wrong with me?”

It’s a profound thought, I think, for us to chew on a bit, especially when you go through moments or periods or seasons of your life where there’s extreme anxiety and conflict. What that expectation breeds is a sense of personal failure. If the answer to the question, “But are you happy” brings an answer of “No, I’m miserable, I hurt, I’m confused,” the question then becomes, “What is wrong?” If you’re in the midst of anxiety or conflict you’re not “happy” and changes are in order.

My answer to that situation is, “More often than not, there’s nothing wrong at all.” Much of what we experience of a negative sort, maybe even most of it, is simply real life, common to everybody.

Author Garth Wood, in his book The Myth of Neurosis, says two things. First, life is tough, no matter how you cut it. Secondly, people who think they’re neurotic are usually perfectly normal people who have unrealistic expectations of what life should bring them. I’d contend that one of those unrealistic expectations, which ultimately becomes an inappropriate goal, is happiness.

We offer Christianity as a route to happiness. In that context Christianity is then perceived as good to the degree that it fulfills our desire for happiness. But God does not make that offer, and I don’t think that’s Jesus’ appeal with His promise of an abundant life. Paul’s life of poverty, turmoil, persecution, and trial would not fit our current definition of “abundance.” Curiously, in the Scripture the concept of happiness (“blessed”) is described in unhappy terms: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted for the gospels sake.

In the pursuit of happiness, human institutions are valid not because of transcendent ethic but because of temporal fulfillment, which is essentially self-centered. For example, marriage is a valid commitment as long as you’re happy. If you’re not happy anymore in the marriage, then you have reason to dissolve the marriage. But I would contend that if you’re getting married to be happy, then you’re getting married for the wrong reasons. Not that personal fulfillment is not a valid goal in some measure, but that’s not what it’s all about. You marry as a covenant agreement between two people to maintain a family unit in society to accomplish certain things, to help each other and embrace the events and issues of life together as helpmates, to raise a family and provide a stable environment for them. Though all of those things may breed a measure of happiness, they breed a measure of misery as well. That’s why the covenant, the agreement, the commitment between husband and wife is not based on happiness. If it was you’d have to amend your vows to say, “Until unhappiness do us part.”

Most people could not get themselves to say that at the altar, but on a visceral level that’s what they mean. How can I say that? Because I know what the goal of their lives are. It’s to be happy. Just ask them. So what they end up doing is perjuring themselves at the altar.

All of this because we have a cultural value, a cultural emphasis, on happiness. The pursuit of happiness becomes the rationale for all sorts of inappropriate behavior—“But she’s not happy married to him. She’s happy with me.” “I’m not happy raising my children.” “But I’m not happy when I’m not high.” “I’m not happy going to work every day.” These are the kinds of comments children make, not adults.

When I talk like this people think I’m being depressed and morbid. I’m not. I’m not unhappy, I don’t think, and I’m probably as happy as the next guy. And this vague response really makes my point: I don’t think of it as a meaningful goal, so it’s not a meaningful question, and it’s hard for me to give a meaningful answer.

I guess my basic contention is that to the degree we cling to this expectation of personal happiness, we will define good life, appropriate life, successful living in the context of freedom from problems and pain. And it’s to that degree that life will deliver to us the severest disappointment, because life is not like that.

Instead, I would direct you to higher goals. Some things are more important than happiness, like faithfulness, and integrity and justice—that is, right conduct and right behavior, right living. I would hold that in the long run this right conduct will bring the most satisfaction, some may even say happiness. But it’s certainly often not true in the short run.

So don’t make it your goal to be happy. Make it your goal to be faithful. Happiness will take care of itself. And the times that it doesn’t, so what? Generally, if I’m really bummed out, I don’t despair because there’s probably nothing critically wrong with me, and it probably won’t last. And if I’m really thrilled about something I enjoy it, but I don’t cling to it because sooner or later I’ll return to normal living, and that’s OK—no guilt trips. And I never expect anything in this life to sustain me at anything like a blissful level.

The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer said: All utopian ideals end up being cruel in the end, because they can never be fulfilled.

I agree with him.

At least that’s the way I see it.