Do you find it odd that some of your privileged friends are more miserable than your poor friends? You would think that a life of relative comfort would make a person more content, but that’s not always the case. Happiness is a destination that can be hard to find; but it’s especially remote when we have the wrong set of directions or take the wrong path.
The path is not circumstance
Often we assume that good circumstances are responsible for our happiness. But that’s not the case. Yes, good health is better than terrible health, and it’s more optimal to have money than to be broke. But circumstances do not account for our contentment. If happiness came from material prosperity, residents in Silicon Valley would be twice as happy as those in Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi. But they aren’t. If finding contentment in God’s promises was about experiencing ease or health, churches in poor communities in Africa wouldn’t exist. Yet not only do they exist; they flourish.
The Bible has the righteous rich (Abraham, Job) and the miserable rich (Saul). Scripture features the righteous poor (the woman who gives two coins) and those who grumble through seasons of austerity (Israel in the wilderness). Some characters overcome difficult circumstances (Sarah and Mary) and others wallow in self-pity (Jonah). We read of outsiders who flourish (Ruth) and insiders who fail (Judas). James and John will settle for nothing less than Jesus’s silver medalists. Zacchaeus seems satisfied with the free meal.
Divorce is hard; yet I know divorced people who are happier than their “happily” married friends. Suicide rates are not particularly higher for someone who makes $35,000 per year than for someone who makes $100,000 per year. Studies show that people who make $230,000 per year are just as likely to live paycheck to paycheck as those who bring in $45,000—signaling that no tax bracket is impervious to the craving for more. In studies of personal happiness, America is in the middle of the pack, occasionally surpassed by nations where American churches annually send teenagers to paint houses and pass out candy. Our circumstances do not ensure our happiness.
The path is not in physical or cultural identity
Our happiness will never be found in physical or cultural identity, either. Sure, there are some advantages to particular identities. Beautiful people have advantages, but they aren’t necessarily happier. Many people would rather be thin than thick, bushier than bald, and taller than short. But these identities hardly correlate to happiness. White men commit suicide at a higher rate than all other groups (in 2015, 70% of suicides in the U.S. were committed by white men). White women die of suicide three times more frequently than Black women. Natives are no happier than immigrants. Misery comes in all colors, ethnicities, shapes, and sizes.
Coming from a wealthy, privileged background can be great; just don’t tell that to the people who come from one. College campuses around the U.S. are witnessing student protests over free-thinking faculty, lack of safe spaces, dangerous guest lecturers, and oppressive educational environments. One might think the students who protest come from generational poverty and lives of oppression–and attend community colleges, junior colleges, and directional state schools. That might make sense–and would follow the logic that the people who feel most oppressed have been the most oppressed. But that isn’t the case. The campuses on fire are institutions that appeal to the super rich and feature selective admissions: Yale, Cal-Berkeley, and Oberlin. The students who have had the most access to resources to make them resilient to conflict have proven to be the most fragile. Who knew that a supportive family, elite college education, and near-guarantee of a high-paying job could make a person so dissatisfied. Our identity does not ensure our happiness.
The path is not external
It’s easy to imagine that if our lives went differently then we would be happier. This assumption that a few different turns in our story would make for a happy life operates from the myth that Plan A is the primary path to happiness. But how do we know? Happy people consistently report that their life barely resembles what they might have imagined when they were 18; so why would we assume that only unhappy lives go off script?
But even beyond our plans, we often put the burden of our happiness on how others treat us. Again, this is a huge mistake. Being treated well or being treated poorly are not the end-all of human happiness. Jesus tells the persecuted that even they can be happy/blessed (Mt. 5:10). Asking others to co-sign on our pursuit of happiness is a path to disappointment.
Just as other people cannot make us happy, neither can institutions. Churches cannot make us happy. Some have healthy histories, others have been historically toxic. But except in cases of severe abuse and malfeasance, churches are not particularly accountable for our outcomes. The same is true for our families of origin. Nobody’s family is perfect. Having grandparents who see race, sexual orientation, or politics differently than us does not make us victims; it simply reminds us that people come from different places in history. Having a father who is a bit chauvinistic or a mother who asks too many personal questions is not a hardship, it’s a rite of passage—a minor revenge for the times we kept them up waiting on Friday night or accidentally ran up the phone bill on long distance calls. Paul would call such a trial a “light and momentary affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Theological and philosophical alignment does not breed happiness. In 2020, 85% of San Fransiscans voted for the same political party. Overland Park, Kansas was a near 50/50 split. People in Overland Park report higher levels of personal happiness. Homogeneity is the wrong path. External events or people will not ensure our happiness.
The path is contentment
Finding happiness often relates to how we set expectations. Happy people decide to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18). They resolve to practice contentment no matter what happens (Phil. 4:11). They know that contentment is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6). Beyond that, there are practical things we can do to nurture contentment:
- Celebrate the success of others. Resentment is a powerful emotion that can prevent us from fully appreciating our blessings.
- Assume the best in others. Never assume that others have all the advantages or that we face unique challenges. Everyone has their own junk; there is no reason to rank our hardships.
- Show gratitude. No matter who we are or what we face, it could be much worse. People who measure life on what they have rather than what they lack are happier.
One root of our discontent is our disinterest in truly being happy. Sometimes we would rather have more than be happy. We’d rather be right than be happy. We’d rather be in charge than be happy. So, we walk the path to misery in pursuit of those things. The addictive desire for more is a spiritual issue. Paul says “in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:10). His solution: “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it” (1 Tim. 6:6). The natural solution would be to try to get what we want in order to be happy. Paul says to reverse it. We should start by being content with what we already have. He says that those who pursue godliness and insist on contentment find great gain.
Maybe happiness is something that comes to us rather than something we chase.
If so, maybe happiness isn’t something we should pursue at all.