In Defense of Happiness

First, some thought on my repellant title.

The Church is uncomfortable with the idea of happiness. We trivialize its pursuit and, whenever a faith leader or author offers steps on being happier, our old Protestant work ethic rises up in protest. Happiness, we are told, is no noble aim. At most, you ought to be joyful. Generally, you ought to be “authentic,” which is our evangelical synonym for “grouchy.”

It’s a rotten way to live.

It’s hardly biblical. The Bible is full of lovely advice on how to be happy. And our very delight in happiness—the natural feeling of it—ought to be a sign to us that we are made for it, and ought to pursue it. There is no reason to be suspicious of those who suggest we ought to try being happier. It’s cruel and cynical to do so.

We go wrong, of course, when we tie happiness and holiness, as if right relationship with God were some guarantee of happy circumstances. Life is frequently miserable, and there are then no steps of mine that can rectify it. All I offer here are a few things that may actually make you “happier,” if not exactly always “happy.” These won’t cure your depression (trust me) and they won’t fix you.

But they won’t hurt. I can guarantee that.

1. Go to Sleep Earlier

Until very recently in human history, we slept at night and were awake during the day. There were few other options, and it was a beautiful, obvious cycle. Edison changed all that, and that’s  just as well, but there is something to those rhythms. When you fall asleep earlier, you wake up comfortable and, more importantly, you wake up feeling truly awake. Your first thought isn’t to judge yourself for how late you were up. Your first thought is simply morning. 

2. Eat Excellent Meals

Satiating your hunger with a quick, fast fix is like satiating lust with cheap porn. It’ll do the trick, but it’s not part of your design. Food is a deeply personal experience that, done right, can energize you on every level. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be “organic,” but it ought to be something you actually enjoy, and that leaves you feeling satisfied, not ashamed. Find a local farmer and buy their eggs. Buy a crockpot and throw a roast in it with a few potatoes and carrots before you go to work. Use your microwave sparingly. Drink beer you can’t pronounce. Eat outside.

3. Use Your Body

Find a way to work out that doesn’t feel like working out, and the options are limitless. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to know how to dance, or how to do karate or how to chop your own firewood. Your body is a tool, and working out doesn’t have to be an end to itself. If all else fails, buy a book on tape and listen to it while you run. If that fails, just spend a few minutes every day stretching every muscle in your body. Reach to your ceiling. Roll your head around. Fill your lungs with air. You’ll have time now, because you’re getting up earlier, remember? Go outside and see the world around you.

4. Be a Good Part of the Internet

Since May, I’ve followed every political rant that came across my Facebook and followed the comments till they died off. In no instance were any minds changed, and everyone seemed angrier for having gotten involved. Block the people who infuriate you from your social media, and resolve to be a good part of the Internet. Encourage strangers, keep in touch with friends and, above all, use it sparingly. The Internet is like fire: fine for a little warmth, but a little goes a long way, and a lot is deadly.

5. Clean Everything

Throw all your clothes and sheets into the washer. While they’re in there, clean the rest of your room. Organize everything. Wipe it all down. Once everything has dried, make your bed and take any clothes you haven’t worn in six weeks to a Goodwill. Hang some posters. Light a candle. Make your room a place you look forward to being in.

6. Become Good at Something

Literally anything. It doesn’t matter what. Pick something that interests you and get to work. A new language. Programming. Pool. Design. Magic tricks. Take the time you used to spend on Facebook fights and become talented instead. Set actual goals. The ease with which you’ll achieve them will shock you. Once you’ve done it, pick something else.

7. Be Too Generous

“God loves a cheerful giver” is one of the Bible’s plainest injunctions, so strive for it. Give money to people in need. More than you can afford. Give money to homeless people (They may spend it on beer. That’s no concern of yours. What if God only divvied out grace to those He was certain wouldn’t abuse it?) Leave bags of groceries on people’s front porches. Be kind to absolutely everyone. Forgive every wrong. Let people enjoy music you hate without criticizing them. Send notes to everyone who’s influenced you and thank them.

8. Do Everything You’ve Been Meaning To

Stop putting it off. Send that email. Pay that bill. Make that phone call. Get it over with. Bite the bullet and deal with the consequences. Take the things in your life that haunt the back of your mind and exorcize them.

9. Delete Non-Essential Apps

Candy Crush. Instagram. Facebook. These things are a mockery of actual downtime. Take your leisure time seriously. Find things that actually soothe you, excite you and inspire you and spend your time on those things. Find the things that make you come alive and the things that stress you out. Do more of the first and less of the second.

10. Actually Pray

Prayer isn’t easy. Prayer isn’t just “talking to God.” The idea of praying on the go—while you’re driving, or doing chores—is a very modern idea that many spiritual giants throughout history would be baffled by. Sit quietly, and make sure you’re listening. Focus on what you’re saying. Keep your attention focused. Prayer will change you incredibly, but it will take some doing.

11. Know the Truth About Yourself

For centuries, the “Church” has tried to hammer home the idea that you’re a bad person. That what you’re inherently selfish and wicked, and that your every whim is to be mistrusted. Don’t you believe a word of it. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you,” God told Ezekiel. “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Your heart is fine. God gave it to you. The people who tell you your heart is bad are just too scared to believe how good the Gospel actually is. “It is for freedom that you’ve been set free.” Believe the truth about what God’s done in you—that, in His eyes, you’re perfect. Live in that freedom.

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10 Comments

  1. Rob Hampson

     /  October 9, 2013

    Although I agree with many of your points, I don’t quite agree with your language. Paul learnt the secret of contentment, not happiness. Also, you say there are many examples of advice about happiness in the Bible (there are), but there are also examples of advice about acute sadness, intense frustration and anger (should we pursue those too?).

    Happiness, like sadness, is a normal transient emotion, an occaisional part of life. The pursuit of perpetual happiness is bound to be an unending one. The emotional state of “happiness” is not meant to be maintained. I also generally think the pursuit of happiness itself does not lead to happiness itself. Ironically, pursuit of other things (being good at guitar, learning church history, becoming a good scientist) can lead to happiness.

    Contentment is a deeper, more fulfilling way of being which can apparently be maintained in the face of opposition, under persecution, while imprisoned or even facing execution… I’d like to see your happiness do that!

    Surely, we should loo for a more ongoing well being than fickle and transient “happiness”?
    Surely we also should be seeking the secret of contentment which Paul discovered…?

    Reply
    • Contentment is undoubtedly the more admirable (and even useful) trait, but I would say that seeking happiness and contentment are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

      Reply
      • You may well be right, it just sounds odd to me to think of someone who is deliberately pursuing happiness as content or a contented person actively pursuing happiness. Maybe the contented person has realised the correct place of the transient emotional state of happiness and seeks it whilst still not devoting themselves solely to its pursuit…? I don’t know…

  2. Nicholas Acord

     /  October 9, 2013

    I hope you know that I’m simply trying to butter you up like a piece of toast, but I do want to affirm you once again as the master word weaver. I think this post is even better than your 20 things to make your 20’s awesome article (I think that was the title). Thanks as always for the way you think.

    Reply
  3. Luke W.

     /  October 9, 2013

    This is great stuff. So glad I found your blog today.

    Reply
  4. Good thoughts, Tyler. I posted about happiness last week as well. My two cents can be seen at http://thisoddhouse.org/2013/10/02/some-kind-of-happy-2/. I landed in 1 Peter 1.

    Reply
  5. I love how God gifts us with happiness through all of the avenues you mentioned (and more!) We should not in any way feel guilty or fake for feeling and being happy. I appreciate that your post spurred me to search for “happiness” in the Bible. What I found is that happiness is not what we do for ourselves, for others or even for God, but rather what he has done for us and what he is doing through us.

    Reply
  6. Tyler, what you wrote here definitely challenged me a great deal. In fact, it got me thinking so hard I had to write a blog post (that’s how I sort through my thoughts) that landed me with the conclusion:

    “But remember the command from the Psalms to give thanksgiving as our sacrifice. God commands us to be happy, a real kind of happy. A happy that depends not on feelings, but on focus, and not on what we do, but what has been done for us.

    Gratitude. Now that’s a way of thinking about happiness I can get on board with.”

    Like Rob, I would like to challenge you to think more deeply about the biblical meaning of happiness. (And if you do have time I would appreciate your critique of my thoughts, which I am sure are biased and flawed: http://mmstroet.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/i-need-a-better-definition-for-happiness/ If not, I always enjoy reading what you write and it often makes me think quite a lot. Thank you for that! 🙂

    Reply

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