What is Christian happiness?

While almost everyone wants to be happy, there is little agreement about what happiness is. Just look at the diversity of these definitions below:

Happiness is to love and to work. – Freud.

Happiness is a warm puppy. – Charles Schulz, of Charlie Brown fame.

Happiness is like obscenity. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. – US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. – Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. – Mahatma Gandhi.

Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude. – Dale Carnegie.

Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. - Denis Waitley.

Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness. - Don Marquis.

Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product. – Eleanor Roosevelt.

And if you want to really exhaust yourself, here are 99 Definitions of Happiness.

But what would a Christian definition of happiness look like? Is there such a thing as Christian happiness? If so, what would it include?

I believe there is such a thing as Christian happiness, quite distinct from any other kind of happiness, but the problem is that it is so multi-layered and multi-dimensional that it’s probably impossible to define it in one sentence. Believe me, I’ve tried. Consider even just the following sample sources of Christian happiness.

  • God is our perfect Father.
  • We know Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
  • The Holy Spirit is sanctifying and empowering us.
  • Our sins are forgiven.
  • God lives in our hearts.
  • We are justified and adopted into God’s world-wide and heaven-wide family.
  • Everything is working together for our good.
  • God is our guard and guide
  • We have all the promises of God.
  • Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven and will welcome us there.

How do you put all these rich ingredients into one simple recipe? But if you’re going to force me into a short one-sentence definition, then I’d say: Christian happiness is the grace of loving and being loved by Jesus who gave his life for me. That to me is the sum and summit of it all.

How would you define Christian happiness?


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The Surprising Science of Happiness

I’ve got a double surprise for you today. The first is the attitudes and activities that increase happiness. Yesterday we discussed how 50% of our happiness was set by our genes, only 10% was determined by our life circumstances, leaving 40% made up of our daily choices in thought, word, and deed.

But what are these thoughts, words, and deeds that generate so much of the difference between various people’s happiness levels?

Surprisingly Simple
When leading positive psychologist (happy scientist?), Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, collated the results of numerous happiness studies she found certain thinking and behavior patterns that commonly characterized the happiest participants:

  • They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
  • They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.
  • They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers and passersby.
  • They practice optimism when imagining their futures.
  • They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment.
  • They make physical exercise a weekly and even daily habit.
  • They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching their children their deeply held values).
  • Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises, and even tragedies. They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge. [The How of Happiness, 23]

It’s surprisingly straightforward isn’t it? Nothing especially spectacular or particularly extraordinary. My own initial response was “Is that it?” That’s it. But when leveraged by the 40% figure, these attitudes and actions can cause a significant increase in personal happiness.

Surprisingly of Similar
The second surprise is how similar they are to Christian values and ethics. Every one of them overlaps with a key Christian virtue. But this shouldn’t really surprise us, should it? God is simply allowing these scientists to discover facts and truths that He has packed into the moral universe. They are only finding out what God already knows, knowledge that He has already shared with humanity in His Word.

But there is still a significant difference between these values and Christian values. Good though they are in and of themselves, they are all on the horizontal plane; they lack a vertical dimension. They are man-centered, not God-centered.

Although we should expect humanity to flourish even when unknowingly following God’s moral order, when the God of these values is brought into the picture, the 40% receives a massive happiness boost. When our happy God becomes the director, the motivator, the enabler, and the rewarder of our daily thoughts, words, and deeds, happiness enters another dimension and should result not just in the odd happy day, but an ongoing increase in our baseline happiness.


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Happiness: The 40% Solution

One statistic that’s pretty constant across countries, cultures, classes, and centuries is that 99% of people want to be happy (yes, there are some people who prefer to be miserable).

But the vast majority of that 99% are looking for happiness in the wrong places.

Ask them what they think would make them happy and most will reply: more money, more friends, more success, more health, more fame, more beauty, more muscles, etc.

Scientists of happiness, (yes, there are such beings) have discovered that improvements in life circumstances or situations only accounts for about 10% of our happiness.  In other words, for all the effort people are putting into becoming more wealthy, healthy, popular, muscular, etc., the emotional return on the investment is miniscule.   These positive events do create happiness, but it’s minimal and brief.

Baseline Happiness
These scientists (often called positive psychologists) have also found that each of us has a baseline happiness that is difficult to change. Just like we all have a baseline weight that we tend to return to regardless of our efforts at dieting or muscle-building, so our parents have bequeathed us a happiness set point in our genes that we tend to return to no matter how many setbacks or triumphs we experience. Research has indicated that our genes explain about 50% of our happiness or lack of it.

Now if you can count, you’re beginning to get worried. If happiness is 10% life circumstances plus 50% genes, that leaves only 40% to work with.

The good news is that that is still a relatively large number. No, it’s not 90%, but neither is it 5%. There’s still quite a lot of potential, a lot that’s in our power to change, in this 40%. And what makes up that 40%?

Happiness

Scientists tell us that’s our daily actions and attitudes – what we do and how we think. In The How of Happiness Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky argues:

Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities [22].

All helpful analysis up to this point, nothing that Christians need disagree with. Where we may begin to differ is in the actual thoughts and actions that scientists say make people happy. But even there, as we’ll see tomorrow, there are some quite surprising overlaps.