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Does God Want Us To Be Happy?

Does God Want Us To Be Happy?

No, I am not about to start pitching the prosperity gospel or any similar “health and wealth” nonsense. We are not defining the good life in terms of perpetual cheerfulness, and we are not defining it in terms of yachts, sunny beaches, affordable household appliances or a well-tailored suit. “Happy” in this context is about flourishing. It is about living the good life by doing what humans were designed to do. Philosophers approach this topic from the perspective of virtue ethics, asking what kind of people we are supposed to be and what characteristics we must acquire in order to live as that kind of person.

Philosophers are not the only ones who ask these kinds of questions about how humans are to live well. Historically, most Christian thinkers have understood the moral life to be the pursuit of happiness. We are going to consider some of the contributions made by biblical scholars and theologians to the question of human flourishing and begin to sketch out what a Christian positive psychology might look like when constructed on a foundation of biblically informed ideas about the human condition.

Happiness in the Bible

Some people have the impression that the Bible teaches “pie in the sky” while ignoring the present life. “Fast on bread and water now, feast on steak and lobster in the life to come”. The reality is, though, that the Good Book has quite a lot to say about the good life in the here and now. In contrast with the Stoic doctrine that the only thing required for happiness is virtue, and also in contrast with the heretical Gnostic doctrine that the material world is entirely evil (making happiness a matter of escaping the material world), a biblical understanding of happiness is grounded in the goodness of creation and in the belief that humans are meant to participate in God’s joy in creation.

A well-lived life as described in the Bible includes family and friends, a peaceful and well-ordered community, a joyful and prosperous home life, and lots of good food and drink. Christians “don’t have to differentiate between spiritual and sensual happiness. They belong together. We were created to live the shalom of flourishing and delight, and the fact that we do not all enjoy such a life is a consequence of the fall, not of any inherent evil in material existence.

In the Old Testament, much of what we find on living well involves the Hebrew word asher, which may be translated as “happy,” “blessed,” or “fortunate.” None of these English words, however, precisely capture what is meant by asher. Rendering asher as “happy” puts us back into the problem we covered earlier: our tendency to equate the word happy with positive emotional gratification. “Blessed” reminds us that the good life is a gift from God, but it does not adequately capture the human effort that also goes into living well.

“Fortunate” makes it sound too much like the good life is a matter of luck, which lines up with Aristotle but not with the Bible. When the Psalms tell us that “blessed is [somebody]” (e.g., Psalm 1:1), we are being given guidance about what we can do to contribute to a life well lived. Ellen Charry refers to her theology of happiness as “asherist,” arguing that most of God’s commands for us “outline an obedient, rewarding and wise life that can be lived now despite grief from sin and life’s contingencies.”

The Greek word makarios functions in the New Testament similarly to how asher does in the Old Testament. Makarios has also been translated as “blessed” or “happy,” and the same English-language difficulties apply (Holladay, 2012). One key passage relevant to this project is the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). The Beatitudes is a list of eight “blessed are those who . . . ” statements, and the word “blessed” here is a translation of makarios (for this reason, the statements are called “makarisms”).

Those who cultivate the characteristics described in these makarisms are living the kind of life that points toward the kingdom of God, which will be rewarded when the kingdom arrives in its fullest. These characteristics also help us toward true happiness in the present life. “To put it more simply, Aristotle’s ‘secular’ eudaimonia becomes Christianity’s spiritual makarios.”. We may therefore, as we attempt to construct a Christian positive psychology, look to the Beatitudes as one source of our ideas about living well.

A Joyful Heart Is Good Medicine

Generally speaking, positive emotion is good for us. Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener reviewed the research literature and concluded that experiencing more frequent positive affect predicted better outcomes across a number of domains, including career success, relationship satisfaction, medical health, social engagement and coping ability. One of the classic studies in this area is the famous “Nun Study.” As part of an ongoing longitudinal study, 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have undergone annual physical and mental assessments, allowing researchers access to their records and agreeing to donate their brains for study after their deaths.

Of those, around two hundred joined the order during a time in which sisters were being asked to write their autobiographies. Danner and colleagues coded these narratives, recording the amount of positive emotion expressed in each. When compared against outcomes six decades later, autobiographical happiness predicted a longer lifespan. The most cheerful nuns tended to live around a full decade longer than the least cheerful nuns. This finding is of great scientific interest, since members of a religious order tend to have so much in common (same gender and marital status, same occupation and income, similar diets, similar activities, similar access to medical care, and so on) that many possible explanations for the relationship between emotion and wellbeing are controlled for.

Lefcourt, Davidson-Katz, and Kueneman found the expression of positive emotion to be associated with improved immune system functioning. Laughing resulted in increased production of antibodies, with greater effects seen in those with better senses of humor. Fredrickson et al. (2000) argue that another possible pathway by which positive emotion improves physical health is by “undoing” the deleterious effects of negative emotions. It is well-known that long-term experience of negative emotions increases the risk of medical conditions, ranging from heart disease to the common cold to longer wound-healing time.

Fredrickson and colleagues first created anxiety in their participants by requiring them to prepare a speech in a very short time, then followed that by showing them one of several possible film clips designed to elicit specific emotions (contentment, amusement, sadness and neutral emotion). Compared to the sadness group and the neutral control group, the heart rates of the participants in the two positive-emotion groups returned to baseline more quickly, supporting the authors’ claim that positive emotions help to undo the physiological strain put on our systems by negative emotions.

Can There Be Too Much Happiness?

In the Elizabethan epic The Faerie Queene, heroic knights serve as personifications of virtues (one character represents faith, another represents justice, and so on). Book Two involves the virtue of temperance (moderation and self-control) embodied in the character of Guyon.

At one point Guyon attends a dinner hosted by three sisters. One sister, Perissa, represents excess, stuffing herself with meat and wine, laughing without control, and cheating on one lover with another. The other sister, Elissa, represents deficient happiness. She finds no joy in food or drink, refuses love and faces the world with frowns and scowls. Between the two is Medina, striking the virtuous balance between the two extremes. Consider the message that too much laughter and merriment is just as bad as not enough laughter and merriment. Is that right? Is there an optimal level of positive emotion?

Fredrickson and Losada had their participants report on their experiences of positive and negative emotion over a twenty-eight-day period. They calculated the ratio of positive to negative emotions and compared that ratio against measures of psychological and social functioning. They found that optimal flourishing tended to occur around a ratio of 2.9 (almost three positive emotions for every negative emotion). Dropping below three positive emotions for every one negative emotion was associated with worse outcomes. Fredrickson and Losada also found an upper limit, though. Above 11.6, the relationship between positive emotion and flourishing breaks down. So experiencing more than eleven positive emotions for every negative emotion could also be a problem. Medina (the virtuous middle sister) may be on to something. 

Or maybe not. Fredrickson’s work has come under heavy attack. Brown, Sokal, and Friedman criticized Fredrickson and Losada on multiple levels, accusing them of using inappropriate equations and using them poorly. Fredrickson countered that, while there might be problems with the mathematics involved, the evidence for an optimal positivity ratio remains solid. A partial retraction was given, in which the authors stated that perhaps the thresholds were not exactly 2.9 and 11.6, but the evidence still supported the central claim of an optimal range of positivity.

More arguing ensued, which can be found in the September 2014 issue of American Psychologist. While the answer to “how much happiness is the right amount” might not range exactly from 2.9 to 11.6, there is evidence that flourishing is found in that median range between excess and deficiency.

Adapted from Positive Psychology in Christian Perspective: Foundations, Concepts, and Applications by Charles Hackney. Copyright © 2021 by Charles Hackney. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 

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