The happiness trap

In our traditional celebration of Thanksgiving this weekend (in Canada), you may be wondering how to feel thankful when things aren’t going well. When unpaid bills start piling up, when a health diagnosis pulls the rug from under your feet, you are in an accident, or a relationship sours, freezes and breaks off. How can I be thankful?

Not dissimilar from the social expectations of Christmastime, the season of Thanksgiving can bring stress to even those of us whose lives are going reasonably well. Because we presume, do we not, that to be thankful we need to be happy? And to be happy, we need to be living ‘the good life’ when all works out the way I want it. And when it doesn’t….

For example, “if I don’t get that job promotion, I’ll be depressed”; or, “if the house does not sell for the price I want, I won’t be happy”; or, “if I don’t get away to that sun destination this winter I’ll be in the dumps”. We find ourselves in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction.

We are caught in the happiness trap. The striving for which basically guarantees us discontentment and frustration. 

Now, if all we want is to be happy, we won’t grow because we will only attend to those things that we already appreciate and understand. If all we want is to be happy, we assume that we are already where we are supposed to be. If all we want is to be happy, we will stay stuck; we have left no room for growth and development that only comes from some intentional work that might in fact be meant to change us for the better.

If we only pursue happiness, we are constraining the movement of the Spirit of God. That Spirit may want to call us to, and discipline us for, some greater purpose. That greater purpose will not be achieved by just wanting to be happy all the time.

In contrast, I suggest a healthier, more realistic approach: to work toward faithfulness rather than happiness. (Gil Rendle, “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness” Congregational Resource Guide, http://www.congregationalresources.org, 2010, p.4)

Writer Lisa Bendall (lisabendall.com) uncovered a recent Florida State University study which advised not to confuse a happy life with a meaningful one. That is, “happiness is lower in people who have more stress and anxiety, but meaning is higher in these same people.” Which suggests something important about a healthy degree of anxiety and stress in one’s life. Through the lens of Christianity, we can say that ‘picking up our cross’ and following Jesus may not yield a happy lifestyle all the time. But it will result in transformative change in our life that will make a positive difference in the world. Bottom line: It won’t be easy.

The narrow search for happiness focuses only on making things easy. And that is why pursuing mere happiness is a sure-fire way of living a self-centred, narcissistic and meaningless life bereft of making a difference in the world for the better. Show me otherwise in the lives of people who have made an incredible contribution to their communities, nations, society and the world. Were they always happy? Did being unhappy at times deter them from pursuing their values and rich meaning for their life?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) suggests the same. Jesus is not promising us a distress-free lifestyle. Pursue the higher ideals. Take the high road. Don’t give up. If I only wanted to be happy, I’m not sure I’d want to follow Jesus on this earthly journey which must surely go through the Cross. Staying true to oneself, to others and to God means a bumpy ride from time to time.

Here are some tips for this life that is given to us — not just for the placid, calm waters of life. Our baptism means that from time to time the water will get rough. And we need to know how to navigate those waters and stay afloat!

Shortly after Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod – ELCIC) was elected some fifteen years ago, he made a trip up to the Ottawa Valley, and went white-water rafting on the Ottawa River. Here is what he learned, eight rules; and applied it to life, faith and church:

1. Don’t be surprised if the boat doesn’t go where you want it to go.

2. Rest in the calm places. There will be more white water soon.

3. Never stop paddling. Even when it seems hopeless.

4. If you get into trouble… DON’T panic.

5. If you go under, let go of everything. Eventually you will come back up.
6. Someone needs to call out the orders. It works better that way.
7. White water is what you came for. Enjoy it.

8. Everyone paddles furiously to get somewhere, but ultimately it’s the current that takes you downstream.

Ultimately, trusting in the grace of God will get us there. Which means, does it not, that even if we are limited in whatever way, even when life is not perfect and things don’t work out for us, we can still fulfill our purpose and find meaning in our faith? Keep paddling! Do what you can, because we really don’t have anything to lose.

Last week when I attended the meeting of Deans in our Synod, Bishop Pryse shared in his closing comments a word of inspiration from Thomas Merton — a quote he has displayed in his office:

You may have to face the fact that your work will apparently be worthless and achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate, not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And this, I believe, brings something more than mere happiness: enduring contentment, meaning and peace in one’s heart.

May your Thanksgiving celebrations encourage you in the value and meaning of the gift of  your life.

About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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