The Pursuit of Happiness

Every so often I’ll stumble across an article on social media promising sage advice for young twenty-somethings entering the throes of adulthood. Typically, it boils down to doing what makes you happy. While I usually struggle with these articles, for the most part ignore them and move on with my day. But this past week I stumbled upon Jaden Smith’s twitter and found a tweet of his that read “from the day you’re born to the day you die, you have one responsibility and that’s to make yourself happy.” When I saw the amount of favorites and re-tweets it received, it got me thinking: does this philosophy actually do more harm than good?

The irony is that in our pursuit of happiness we’ve become the most miserable people ever. Studies show depression has increased in recent years and that self-absorption has played a part in it. Our self-centeredness has caused the breakdown of the family further isolating ourselves from outside community. When the commitment is to our happiness, other things invariably suffer. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Though there are numerous reasons behind this, I imagine a solid chunk of them being people whose spouses no longer made them “happy.” I wonder if this philosophy is actually selfishness disguised as wisdom. Ultimately, if all we care about is ourselves then that’s all we’ll have in the end.

The other day I was in the grocery store when I saw a woman with a t-shirt that read, “it’s all about me.” Regardless of whether or not this woman actually believed it, it’s a testament to what we think about ourselves: the world exists for us. But don’t you see how counterintuitive that is? When everyone believes that everything is about them there is no room for others in their lives apart from that person’s service to them. But, of course, that person would never be their servant because they themselves are convinced the world is supposed to be theirs. Who wins in this situation? This philosophy is both a product and a perpetuator of our individualistic culture, which is self-defeating by its very nature. 

Some will invariably ask, “what if helping people makes you happy?” I’m not convinced that’s good enough. To use happiness as a motivator allows us to excuse our passivity towards people because it would make us unhappy. That, to me, is wrong. Some things are more important than our feelings. Moreover, to say action only flows out our feelings overlooking the inverse. Sometimes in the process of doing something for someone we gain a sense of happiness or joy we didn’t have before – which, by the way are not the same thing. You can be unhappy for a moment while having a profound sense of joy about your life and you can also be happy about something without joy. 

But even from a neurological standpoint I find this to be somewhat troubling. Our brains are constantly at war with each other when it comes to decision-making. Our pleasure center wants things instantaneously whereas our more logical brain argues for delayed gratification. Which makes us happier?

As a follower of Jesus, my understanding is that I was made to love and be loved by God. What’s interesting is that in Him I am happiest and most joyful. Yet while happiness is a great byproduct of following Jesus my commitment isn’t to my happiness, it’s to his glory; and my joy flows from that. Out of the abundance of what God has done for me I’m freed up to serve others. I find this infinitely more fulfilling than living for myself.

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