What Do Secular Studies on Happiness Have in Common with the Bible?

The former chapel dean at Duke University tells about a recruiter coming from Teach For America, an organization that strives to place talented graduates as teachers in some of the lowest-rated public schools. She described the schools in the program and how two of their teachers were killed on the job in the past year. After surmising that none of the students would be interested, she closed the meeting, mentioning where students could find brochures.

Students rushed to grab the limited number of brochures, some literally fighting to get one. This story reveals something interesting about these students’ longing for meaning—they weren’t happy people willing to give up their happiness in exchange for noble service. Many were almost certainly unhappy people who were moved to do something great and fulfilling with their lives—something that wouldn’t take away happiness but bring it! Yes, they were considering turning their backs on safety, prestige, and affluence. But they had no plans to turn their backs on happiness.

Secular research confirms the benefits of happiness and the downsides of unhappiness. It also shows that there are steps we can take to raise our level of happiness, including our need for adventure and fulfillment. When scientific studies confirm the observations of the wise and are in harmony with Scripture, they’re worth noting.

Research repeatedly parallels biblical principles.


In the late 1990s, Martin Seligman, the president of the American Psychological Association, noted psychology’s emphasis on the negative side of life, including depression and anxiety, while ignoring the positive, including happiness and well-being. His observation spurred new research and hundreds of articles on happiness.

For instance, modern happiness studies demonstrate that wealth, success, power, and popularity are not predictors of happiness. People who choose gratitude and engage in respectful, others-centered relationships are happier than those who are self-focused and driven by feelings of entitlement.

With their talk of being thankful, serving others, and giving generously of time and money—accompanied by the assurance that money, sex, and power won’t buy happiness—progressive secular psychologists sound remarkably like old-fashioned preachers!

Consider the results of a Duke University study that concluded happiness is fostered by eight factors:

  • Avoiding suspicion and resentment. Nursing a grudge was a major factor in unhappiness.
    Not living in the past. An unwholesome preoccupation with old mistakes and failures leads to depression.
  • Not wasting time and energy fighting conditions that can’t be changed. People are happier when they cooperate with life instead of trying to run from it.
  • Staying involved with the living world. Happiness increases when people resist the temptation to become reclusive during periods of emotional stress.
  • Refusing to indulge in self-pity when handed a raw deal. It’s easier for people to achieve happiness when they accept the fact that nobody gets through life without some sorrow and misfortune.
  • Cultivating old-fashioned virtues—love, humor, compassion, and loyalty.
  • Not expecting too much of oneself. When there is too wide a gap between self-expectation and a person’s ability to meet the goals he or she has set, feelings of inadequacy are inevitable.
  • Finding something bigger to believe in. Self-centered, egotistical people score lowest in any test for measuring happiness.
  • While reading this study, I found myself writing Bible verses in the margins, summarizing the findings: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18), “[Forgive] each other … as the Lord has forgiven you” (Col. 3:13).

Compare this list point by point to the study’s eight-part conclusion:

  • Jesus, on not holding grudges: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
  • The apostle Paul embraced not living in the past: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).
  • Jesus instructed us not to worry about things we can’t change: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. … Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:25, 27).
  • Solomon spoke of the importance of engaging in human relationships: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow” (Eccl. 4:9–10).
  • Paul knew that contentment is the antidote to self-pity: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11–12).
  • The list of virtues described by secular psychologists looks very similar to this one: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5–7).
  • We’re reminded of our limitations and need of mercy and grace: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
  • Jesus said we should focus on what’s bigger than ourselves: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Furthermore, we are better off with others-centered humility than self-centered arrogance: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).

Only the cross can bridge the gulf between modern psychology and true happiness in God.

Secular studies, naturally, say nothing about our need to know and love the God of the Bible. Without a personal relationship with God, we won’t enjoy true peace and happiness.

A naturalistic worldview that embraces randomness, ultimate meaninglessness and survival of the fittest doesn’t lend itself to happiness.

Psychologists and self-help books offer proven methods for increasing a subjective sense of happiness. However, without faith in Christ and the indwelling Spirit as an agent of change, we’re left without a solid foundation for happiness. A self-achieved, tolerable happiness can anesthetize us into becoming mere sin managers, distancing us from our desperate need for God. Even when this strategy appears sufficient for now, it can’t survive the Day of Judgment.

The problem of how to reconcile evil people with a God who hates evil calls for no less than the greatest solution ever devised—one so radical it appears foolish to the sophisticated—and that is the cross of Christ.

Psychologist David Powlison says, “Don’t ever degenerate into giving good advice unconnected with the good news of Jesus crucified, alive, present, at work, and returning.” Good advice is always better than bad advice. Yet those trapped in a burning building need more than advice—they need good news coupled with practical action. People who are Hell bound need someone who will brave the searing flames, usher them from sin’s destruction, into everlasting happiness.

Our desire for happiness points to our need for Christ.

The human deficiency of both holiness and happiness points to our separation from God. The prospect of happiness, peace, and contentment can lead people toward a need that’s beneath the surface and less obvious to them: holiness.

J. C. Ryle said something as true today as when he wrote it in the 1800s: “A merry heart, and a readiness to take part in all innocent mirth, are gifts of inestimable value. They go far to soften prejudices, to take stumbling-blocks out of the way, and to make way for Christ and the Gospel.”

This doesn’t mean the Christian life will be smooth or easy. God promises, We’re told not to be surprised when we face great difficulties (see 1 Peter 4:12).

Yet many of the same passages that promise suffering also offer joy (see James 1:2–3). Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Though people don’t intuitively realize their desperate need for atonement and redemption, they do instinctively know that they want to be happy—and they are troubled when they aren’t. Happiness, then, is a bridge we can cross to present the gospel.

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This article originally appeared on EPM.org and is reposted here by permission.