Is there some formula for happiness? I am old enough and have seen enough of life toknow that there are many things in life that are not under our control and so there is only so much one can do to pursue happiness even if a formula actually did exist. And the fact that we live in a fallen world means that some joys have to await the new heaven and the new earth. Still, I believe there are some elements of life that, if pursued, can lead to some degree of shalom this side of heaven. I spoke on this very topic to a lunchtime group in Penang recently. It seemed like a good topic to end the year as preparation for the next.
Others are also thinking and writing on this subject as well. In a recent article in the Bloomberg View, Ramesh Ponnuru commented on the work of Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (“How to be happy,” Opinion, Bloomberg View, December 24, 2013, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-23/how-to-be-happy.html.) From his research, Brooks concludes: “the four great sources of happiness within human control are faith, family, friends and work.” His list is very close to mine. Here are my four sources of happiness. I am not a sociologist like Brooks. I get my list from the Bible, from Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 in particular.
(Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” [Genesis 2:18 NLT])
A key source of happiness is being connected to significant others in our lives. Brook’s study mentions family and friends. We are created for community and we are happy when we have significant social connections in our lives. Indeed, if we do not have such significant connections, our very lives may be in danger.
Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.
The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity. (Jessica Olien, “Loneliness is Deadly,” Medical Examiner, Slate, Aug. 23, 2013).
Truly, it is not good for man to be alone, but many are.
2. Meaningful work
The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 2:15 NLT]
We may complain about our work, but usually our complaints are more about the conditions of our work, and not about work itself. There is a part of us that finds great joy in being able to do what we do best in pursuits that we are passionate about. Of course, for many of us, work is also about making a living. But we also want our work to count for something. Brooks comments:
Once basic material needs are met, though, satisfying work matters more than money. What people want is not just success, but also “earned success” – the feeling that one’s efforts have paid off. (“How to be Happy”)
Happiness is linked to our ability to discover our calling and the degree we are able to pursue it.
By and large a good rule for finding out (your life calling) is this:
the kind of work God usually calls you to do is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 95.)
Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. [Genesis 2:8-9 NLT]
Humankind was created to have a relationship with their maker. In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal wrote: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” It has been well documented that people with religious beliefs are generally happier than secularists.
A belief in God could lead to a more contented life, research suggests. (“Religion ‘linked to happy life,’” BBC News, Tuesday, 18 March 2008.)
This should not surprise us if we were created by God to have a relationship with Him. God being God doesn’t need us. But He created us so that He could bless us and through us bless others. Followers of Jesus now know Him as Abba, Father, and that in His presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
4. Work-Sabbath rhythm
On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation. [Genesis 2:2-3 NLT]
The word Sabbath does not appear in the first two chapters of Genesis but the divine rhythm of work and rest does. Ruth Haley Barton describes this work-Sabbath rhythm well.
Sabbath-keeping is more than just a day of rest; it is a way of ordering one’s entire life around a pattern of working six days and then resting on the seventh. It is an approach to living in time that helps us honor the rhythm of things—work and rest, fruitfulness and dormancy, giving and receiving, being and doing, activism and surrender. (Ruth Haley Barton, “Part 2 Leading in Rhythm: Rhythms of Work and Rest,” Transforming Center, July 8, 2013.)
The effects of a life that does not respect this pattern is also well documented:
A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental medicine compared those that do not work overtime to those who work overtime regularly to gauge whether longer work hours led to anxiety and/or depression. The study determined that those who worked overtime regularly had increased levels of anxiety and depression. This was true regardless of gender, or vocation. (Michael Janati, “A Nation Overworked: Abandoning Happiness and Health for Paychecks: Part 1,” Communities, The Washington Times, April 22, 2012.)
I have often said that if we wait long enough, empirical science will only confirm what was already in the Word all along. Want to live a happy life? Here are four ingredients for happiness from God’s recipe book: Community, Meaningful Work, God (relationship with), and living life with a Work-Sabbath rhythm. If you have experienced these things to any degree in 2013, give thanks. May God’s recipe for happiness also guide us as we plan for 2014.