What Is Meaningful Happiness?

Excerpted from ‘Jesus the Great Philosopher’ (Baker Books)

While standing in line at my neighborhood Lowe’s to buy some deck-building materials, an item unexpectedly caught my eye. Amid issues of Fine Woodworking and Creative Gardening was a magazine titled The Happiness Formula: How to Find Joy & Live Your Best Life. I had to buy it, even at the ridiculous price of $12.99. The magazine is a glossy ninety-five pages of articles, pro tips, charts, and graphs about the “science of happiness.” In short, snappy prose, they tell us how “modern science” (by which they mean the branch of psychotherapy called positive psychology) teaches us what things to do and not do to be happy. Eat right. Avoid bad relationships. Ride bicycles more, like the happy Swedish people do. Practice yoga. Even a home improvement store is offering help on the happiness question.

And why not? After all, this is what it means to be an American. It’s right there in our Declaration of Independence. The great American experiment was self-consciously rooted in the French Enlightenment view of humanity—that all humans are created equal, with inalienable rights. Among these rights a big three are stated explicitly—“Life, Liberty and,” wait for it, “the pursuit of Happiness.” I’m not being snarky. There are plenty of problems with the French Enlightenment and with American culture, but they’re onto something here that is bigger than France or the United States. The desire for happiness is universally human and not wrong.

But humans, we have a problem. I don’t mean the big issues that fill our news feeds and spark heated debates—racial tensions, social and economic inequity, definitions of sexuality, polarized political parties, even global pandemics. These are real issues, but they’re not the human problem I’m talking about.

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I’m talking about a wider, deeper, and older problem that can be boiled down to the question of meaningful happiness. Does any of what we do really matter? Does it have ultimate and lasting meaning? And will this meaningfulness make me happy? These are not just the musings of 19-year-olds in their first philosophy class but are questions that all humans eventually ask themselves. And it’s not just a modern existential question. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes records the exact same wrestling by an ancient Near Eastern guy.

The fact that we all eventually ask that question shows there’s something to it. So then we must ask, How do we live meaningful lives? How do we find and maintain true happiness?

These are the questions at the foundation of human experience. Without meaning, life is not worth living. Only humans die by suicide. Even many who do not choose to end their own lives eventually feel like the philosophical superhero Deadpool, who remarks sardonically, “Life is an endless series of train wrecks with only brief, commercial-like breaks of happiness.”

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Content taken from Jesus the Great Philosopher by Jonathan T. Pennington, © 2020. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.