It doesn’t take a world-class social observer to gather that a good life is a happy life. Happiness is of such value that it has even become an economic indicator. But despite the exalted status of hedonic satisfaction, happiness isn’t the ultimate good that man has made it out to be.
Emily Esfahani Smith of the Atlantic writes,
For at least the last decade, the happiness craze has been building. In the last three months alone, over 1,000 books on happiness were released on Amazon, including Happy Money, Happy-People-Pills For All, and, for those just starting out, Happiness for Beginners.
One of the consistent claims of books like these is that happiness is associated with all sorts of good life outcomes, including — most promisingly — good health. Many studies have noted the connection between a happy mind and a healthy body — the happier you are, the better health outcomes we seem to have. In a meta-analysis (overview) of 150 studies on this topic, researchers put it like this: “Inductions of well-being lead to healthy functioning, and inductions of ill-being lead to compromised health.”
But a new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) challenges the rosy picture. Happiness may not be as good for the body as researchers thought. It might even be bad.
Of course, it’s important to first define happiness. A few months ago, I wrote a piece called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” about a psychology study that dug into what happiness really means to people. It specifically explored the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life.
It seems strange that there would be a difference at all. But the researchers, who looked at a large sample of people over a month-long period, found that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless “giving” behavior.
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of the study wrote. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.” While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, “Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.”
The new PNAS study also sheds light on the difference between meaning and happiness, but on the biological level. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher who specializes in positive emotions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA, examined the self-reported levels of happiness and meaning in 80 research subjects[...]
Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.
“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — ”are about as good for you for as adversity,” says Fredrickson.
It’s important to understand that for many people, a sense of meaning and happiness in life overlap; many people score jointly high (or jointly low) on the happiness and meaning measures in the study. But for many others, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants. Only one quarter of the study participants had what the researchers call “eudaimonic predominance” — that is, their sense of meaning outpaced their feelings of happiness.
Happiness is to humanism as glorification is to Christianity, except that happiness doesn’t complete or restore man in any meaningful sense, as does God’s grace. In fact, the pursuit of happiness, in and of itself, brings one to a perfectly vacuous, unfulfilled, and immoral destination, according to the research of Roy Baumeister. Meanwhile, Cole and Fredrickson think such a monomaniacal pursuit of one’s happiness might even make one physically unhealthy.
Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.
People with such lives seem rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them. Interpersonally, they are takers rather than givers, and they give little thought to past and future. These patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.
Maybe this explains why we, as a nation, are always wanting something for nothing, oftentimes easy money, and prefer the cheap, tawdry thrills of celebrity gossip to meaningful discussion, let alone meaningful action. Thanks to sin, we love free lunches, apathy, and vapid, cowardly chit-chat.
However, God didn’t make man to pursue such hollow ends. The Westminster Divines, who assembled in London some 350 years ago to compile, arguably, the greatest of all the Christian confessions of faith—the Westminster Confession of Faith—described man’s “chief and highest end” as being “to glorify God, and fully enjoy him forever.” Psalm 73:24-28 probably provides the best expression of this principle:
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.
It is God that we are designed to glorify and enjoy, not mankind, and it is upon God’s grace that true enjoyment rests. We can’t enjoy or love each other in a meaningful sense without knowing Christ, and we can’t enjoy or love anything without God’s common grace. Certainly, happiness can be wonderful and godly, but it is never more than a byproduct of God’s handiwork. It certainly isn’t the highest pursuit of life.
Ultimately, this research is difficult to reconcile with the humanistic mindset that hardship is to be avoided at all costs. Large-scale poverty and illness are almost unanimously viewed by the secular humanist culture as awful and destructive because the suffering they cause hinders man’s climb toward greatness and perfection. But such things are blessings for the Christian, though maybe not immediately seen as such. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Paul perfectly illustrates this Christian attitude toward the “thorns” of this life: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Elsewhere in the Bible, we are told that it is by the fires of trial and hardship that God refines our faith “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). And just as a loving father is “diligent to discipline” (Prov. 13:24) his son, so also is God diligent to chastise his elect people in order to draw forth greater glory.
Hebrews 12:7-11 reads:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
It is through trials that the sufficiency of the Lord’s grace is made evident and we are brought into greater conformity with His will, realizing just how amazing His grace is. And while happiness may also seem amazing, by itself, it is remarkably lifeless. Without Jesus anchoring our delight, happiness is meaningless and little more than a dead end.