From the March/April 2015 issue of Discern Magazine

What Is Happiness?

Happiness is precious and far too rare. We have tried every trick in an effort to conjure it up, but it remains elusive. How does God say to pursue happiness?

What is happiness? A number of years ago there was a series of popular posters with the saying, “Happiness is…” For example, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

It was cute, and true! While you are looking at the poster, or better yet, cuddling the soft, loving, loyal and fun little puppy, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of happiness! It’s wonderful, and it makes you want to feel that feeling more often—maybe always!

What makes people happy?

For some people, happiness is the adventure of sports, and maybe even an extreme sport—the thrill of skydiving, scuba diving or ski jumping. Whatever it is, many people can’t wait for the weekend to do it again. The rush, the thrill—that’s what they live for. That’s their idea of happiness. 

Others pursue happiness through career advancement and financial success. Status and the finer things money can buy are goals and markers in this pursuit.

Others seek happiness through relationships. The number or the depth of the relationships are seen as keys to greater fulfillment and happiness.

Of course, if you ask 10 people, you’ll probably find at least 10 ideas of how to get happiness. About the only thing we can all agree on is that we want to be happy all the time, and most of us would say we want everyone else to be happy too.

But we live in a world filled with unhappiness. Sometimes the things we do to try to make ourselves happy make those around us unhappy. And the things we do that are fun and that seem to make us happy today often help make us unhappy in the future.

Let’s look at the kind of happiness people try to get, and compare it with the happiness God gives. God’s happiness will make us—and all people—truly happy for all eternity!

A brief history of happiness

History doesn’t record a lot of happiness. Instead there’s been a lot of sorrow and sadness. Wise King Solomon commented on this:

“For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).

This word vanity implies pointlessness, meaninglessness—like trying to grab a cloud or chase the wind.

Books have been written about this subject, like Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon. Although the book is thick, the amount of happiness it describes and the amount it brings to the reader seems small. In fact, despite its title, it’s a pretty depressing book.

But it does contain some fascinating facts. People throughout history didn’t look at happiness in the same way people in the Western world do today.

The pursuit of happiness

We generally think everyone has the right to pursue happiness and to be happy. But Dr. McMahon says that is a way of thinking that grew in the Enlightenment era. 

It was still a new concept when Thomas Jefferson penned the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It seems these famous lines in the Declaration of Independence were inspired by Virginia’s Declaration of Rights by George Mason, written earlier the same year. Mason listed man's “natural Rights” as “Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”

But it was English philosopher John Locke who coined the phrase pursuit of happiness 95 years earlier in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1681). He wrote:

"The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.”

Is happiness just fate—or a right?

Dr. McMahon spends a lot of time talking about the ancient Greeks and all their philosophies. You see, they started, as it seems most societies in history did, believing that happiness was just fate, luck, happenstance—a rare gift of the fickle, unpredictable gods. 

It’s interesting that the English word happiness is from the root word happ, “meaning chance, fortune, what happens in the world.” It gives us “such words as ‘happenstance,’ ‘haphazard,’ ‘hapless,’ and ‘perhaps’” (p. 11). 

Happiness wasn’t something you could do much about. You just had to live with the hand you were dealt. The Greek gods didn’t seem too interested in making people happy—they were too busy trying to get happiness for themselves. So people thought happiness was fate—blind luck.

If we were happy all the time in this life, we wouldn't make the changes we need to make to become like God and to prepare to be in His family.

But real happiness is not fate or luck.

Fast-forward to the Enlightenment a couple hundred years ago. People began to feel that everyone could be, and even had the right to be, happy. Some great thinkers tried to make happiness into a mathematical formula to find ways to maximize pleasure for the greatest number of people while minimizing the pain. 

People tried all these ideas out, but they didn’t bring lasting happiness. From the French Revolution to communism, to the “free love,” drug-induced temporary “happiness” of the 1960s, these experiments have all been failures.

You can’t just give happiness to the majority; you can’t force people to do things that you think will make them happy; and using drugs of any kind can never bring lasting happiness.

Drug-induced happiness?

In Bible times the drug of choice was alcohol, and the Proverbs give a poetic description of some of the terrible results of using substances like alcohol to try to achieve happiness (Proverbs 23:29-35).

None of these problems are secret. Anyone could see the dangers. Yet drugs, both illegal and prescribed, continue to be a broad way people take to try to get happiness. Why?

As science learns more about brain chemistry, it can seem like happiness is just the proper mix of chemicals in the brain. No wonder illegal drug use is so common today. People aren’t happy and desperately want to forget their pain and despair and to feel some happiness. 

But this dog always bites. There are always side effects, risks to health, addictions, plus the dangers of being associated with drug dealers and the sleaziest side of human society. And when you come down from the high, the original problems are still there and multiplied!

Real happiness can’t come through drugs.

The journey of most people today is all about trying desperately to find happiness. It’s a journey, and an experiment, that has been tried thousands of times in many different ways. 

But one man in history surely holds the record for the most scientific and complete study of happiness. That man was Solomon.

Solomon’s scientific experiment to answer, what is happiness?

Solomon recorded his personal experiments in the search for happiness in a short little book called Ecclesiastes. It’s only about 10 pages long, but it packs more of a punch than Dr. McMahon’s 560-page book. And although it can also be depressing, it is worth reading. 

In the 10th century B.C., wealthy and wise King Solomon applied all of his riches, energy and smarts to a controlled experiment in happiness.

He tried it all: He tried wisdom and foolishness (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18). He tried comedy and partying (2:1-3). He tried great building projects and all the things we think about with the rich and famous. He tried entertainment on a scale that couldn’t be repeated until our modern world where we can carry all our singers in a mobile device (2:4-8).

Yet, no matter what he tried, he found he wasn’t satisfied or truly happy. He felt it all was “vanity of vanities”—utter emptiness, the ultimate absurdity (1:1-4, 8).

What is the main message of Ecclesiastes?

Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible summarizes Ecclesiastes this way:

“The book simply observes life around and draws the logical conclusions. … Life as man lives it, without God, is futile, meaningless, purposeless, empty. It is a bleak picture. Nature and history go round in circles: there is nothing new. Add up the profit and loss of human life and you are better off dead. Life is unfair; work is pointless; pleasure fails to satisfy; good living and wise thinking are rendered futile by death. ‘Be realistic,’ says the book, ‘If life without God is the whole story, see it for what it is. Don’t pretend. Don’t bury your head in the sand. This is the truth about life.’”

Ecclesiastes doesn’t end there, of course, and neither does the Bible. There is a God, and there is real purpose and meaning to life. There is a way that leads to true happiness for all.

What is real happiness?

We’ve looked at a lot of things true happiness isn’t. It’s not just luck. It’s not just a mix of brain chemicals, and it can’t be produced by drugs or alcohol. It’s not having lots of money, entertainment or even knowledge. All of this can be just meaningless.

Happiness is: 

So, what is real happiness?

Happiness begins with respecting and obeying God

Solomon’s conclusion to Ecclesiastes tells us: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (12:13). His commandments show us how to love God and how to love other people.

Solomon shows us there is no happiness without God in the picture. God gives meaning to our lives, and that meaning is what ultimately gives us real, lasting happiness. 

Happiness is becoming God’s children

Consider this amazing summary of what God has in store for those He calls now and, eventually, for all humanity:

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1). God wants us to be His children, to be like Him (verses 2-3)! That is the real purpose of human life. 

Happiness is giving

Trying to get happiness or to only think about having a good time now doesn’t work. If we were happy all the time in this life, we wouldn’t make the changes we need to make to become like God and to prepare to be in His family. 

To really be like God, we can’t make getting eternal life or getting happiness for ourselves our main goal. That’s not what God is like. He is a God of love—outgoing concern—of giving, not getting.

As Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). 

We can be inspired by biblical characters like Ruth who thought only of how to show love and loyalty to her grieving mother-in-law, Naomi. But the book of Ruth shows God did give her happiness too. 

We can be inspired by the 4-year-old boy I read about whose elderly neighbor had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy climbed into his lap—a loving and comforting, giving act.

And we can be inspired by the ultimate example of giving, Jesus Christ, who gave up everything to become human and then willingly gave His life. Why was He willing to do that? Because of the joy set before Him—the joy of bringing many brothers and sisters into God’s family (Hebrews 12:2; 2:10)!

He showed us that eternal joy, as opposed to the fleeting feelings of happiness, requires a long-term view and a willingness to give up some pleasures now for the ultimate pleasures forever. 

Happiness is forever!

Visualize the happiness God has in store: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Read more about God’s way of life that produces happiness in the articles “Beatitudes: Keys to Real Happiness” and “Are You Happy?

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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