How Happiness Happens Bible Study Lessons
Worldwide, people profess that happiness is their most cherished goal.2 The most popular class in the three-century history of Yale University is on happiness.3 Magazine covers promise everything from sexual happiness to financial contentment. I googled “happy hour,” and in one second seventy-five million options invited my click.
Marketing companies get this. Television commercials make grand promises: Want to be happy? Buy our hand cream. Want some joy? Sleep on this mattress. Desire a dose of delight? Eat at this restaurant, drive this car, wear this dress. Nearly every advertising strategy portrays the image of a joy-filled person, even the advertisement for Preparation H. Before using the product the guy scowls as he sits. Afterward he is the image of joy. Perhaps the H stands for happy?
Happiness. Everyone craves it.
And everyone benefits from it. Happy people enjoy higher odds of a strong marriage, lower odds of divorce, and superior work performance. They are also healthier, resulting from a bolstered immune system.4 In one study researchers found a correlation between happiness and fatter pocketbooks.5 An analysis of twenty-five studies indicated that happy people are more effective leaders than Debbie Downers.6 Happiness, it turns out, helps everyone.
But fewer people are finding it. Only one-third of Americans surveyed said they were happy. In the nine-year history of the Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, the highest index was 35 percent. This means a cloud of perpetual grayness overshadows two out of three people.7 Smiles are in short supply. By some estimates clinical depression is ten times more rampant now than it was a century ago.8 The World Health Organization forecasts that by the year 2020 “depression will become the second leading cause of disease worldwide.”9
It used to be that older people were happier. People in their sixties and seventies generally scored higher in the areas of contentment and appreciation of life. That has changed. Age does not seem to bring the satisfaction it once did.10
How can this be? Education is accessible to most. We’ve made advancements in everything from medicine to technology, yet 66 percent of us can’t find an adequate reason to check the yes box on the happiness questionnaire.
Are genetics to blame? Not to the degree one might think. Heredity may influence as much as 50 percent of our disposition. Even if this number is accurate, that leaves the other 50 percent under our purview.11
What’s up? How do we explain the gloom? While the answers are varied and complex, among them must be this idea: we are using the wrong door.
The oft-used front door to happiness is the one described by the advertising companies: acquire, retire, and aspire to drive faster, dress trendier, and drink more. Happiness depends on what you hang in your closet, park in your garage, mount on your trophy wall, deposit in your bank account, experience in your bedroom, wear on your wedding finger, or serve at your dining table. Happiness happens when you lose the weight, get the date, find the mate, or discover your fate. It’s wide, this front door to happiness.
Yet for all its promise it fails to deliver.
In a classic study psychologists determined that recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery were no happier than recent accident victims who were consequently disabled. The two groups were asked to “rate the amount of pleasure they got from everyday activities: small but enjoyable things like chatting with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast, laughing at a joke, or receiving a compliment. When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners.”12
Even the thrill of winning the lottery wears off.
More money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life—getting enough to eat, having a place to live, affording medical care. But once people reach the middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increase in happiness.13 Americans who earn more than $10 million annually report a happiness level only slightly higher than the blue-collar workers they employ.14 As one Harvard professor said, “We think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, and actually it brings a little happiness for a short time.”15
We’ve all seen happy peasants and miserable millionaires, right?
There is another option. It requires no credit card, monthly mortgage, or stroke of fortune. It demands no airline tickets or hotel reservations. It stipulates no PhD, MD, or blue-blood pedigree. Age, ethnicity, and gender are not factors. Balmy climates, blue skies, and Botox are not mandated. No resources for psychoanalysis, plastic surgery, or hormone therapy? No problem. You don’t have to change jobs, change cities, change looks, or change neighborhoods.
But you might need to change doors.
The motto on the front door says “Happiness happens when you get.” The sign on the lesser-used back door counters “Happiness happens when you give.”
Doing good does good for the doer.
Research bears this out.
When volunteers were put in a functional MRI scanner and were told they would be giving some of their money to charity, the areas of their brains associated with pleasure—like food and sex—lit up like Christmas trees. Giving to help others triggers dopamine.16 (New fund-raising slogan perhaps?)
In another study a team of social psychologists distilled happiness factors into eight common denominators. Two of the first three involve helping others. Happy, contented people “devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.” And “they are often the first to offer a helping hand to co-workers and passers-by.”17
Seeking joy? Do good for someone else. A tender example of this truth came my way just today. I met with a husband and daughter to plan the funeral of the wife and mother. Patty was the picture of unselfishness. We tried to imagine how many kids she had hugged, diapers she had changed, children she had taught, and hearts she had encouraged. To see her smile was to see springtime thaw the winter ice.
Three months ago a brain condition had left her unable to speak, partially paralyzed, and living in a rehabilitation center. Her spirits sank so low she did not want to eat and had trouble sleeping. One evening her daughter had an idea. She placed her mother in a wheelchair and rolled her from room to room, looking for people who needed encouragement. It didn’t take long.
Though unable to speak, Patty could touch and pray. So she did both. She patted other patients and then placed her hand on their hearts and bowed her head. For the better part of the evening, she touched and prayed her way through the rehab center. That night her appetite returned, and she slept peacefully.
The words of Jesus are spot-on: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Because when you do, it has a boomerang effect. Happiness happens when we give it away.
Max Lucado, How Happiness Happens: Finding Lasting Joy in a World of Comparison, Disappointment, and Unmet Expectations (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019).