Our culture is obsessed with happiness. From the movies we watch, the purchases we make, and our obsessive use of technology and social media, it is clear that many people today live for happiness.
You might be thinking, “So what? Isn’t happiness a good thing?” Well, that depends on what is meant by happiness. In his book Happiness is a Serious Problem, Dennis Prager argues that the common definition of happiness today is H = nF. In other words, happiness is equivalent to the number (n) of fun (F) experiences we can accumulate in a lifetime. The more fun experiences, the happier we are. To be happy is to feel good and have fun.
Prager explains, “Most people believe that happiness and fun are virtually identical. Ask them, for example, to imagine a scene of happy people. Most people will immediately conjure up a picture of people having fun (e.g. laughing, playing games, drinking at a party).”
Pleasure is certainly not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, God designed us as embodied beings to experience remarkable pleasure. But can pleasure-seeking in itself ultimately bring a meaningful life?
The Futility of a Pleasure-Seeking Life
King Solomon, who had all the pleasures the world could possibly offer, wrote millennia ago about the emptiness that comes from seeking pleasure as the purpose of life:
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine…till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life…So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem…And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3, 9-11).
In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman notes that there was a tenfold increase in depression among Baby Boomers over any previous generation. Why? According to his analysis, it is because Boomers were the first generation to focus on their own pleasure as the goal of life. According to Seligman, lasting happiness occurs when people outgrow their obsessive concern with personal feelings and live for something beyond themselves.
The paradox of happiness is that if we seek it, we won’t find it. True happiness comes when we stop focusing our own feelings, and lovingly seek the best for others. This is (partly) why Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek yourself first, and your life will be empty. Seek God first, and you will have a meaningful life filled with genuine happiness—whether you feel good or not.
The Bible has a different view of the goal of human life. Rather than living for happiness (understood as having certain feelings and experiences), Scripture teaches that the goal of life is to love God and love other people (Mark 12:28-34). When we do love God, and seek His glory, we are “blessed” regardless of how we feel.
Consider Psalms 1, which opens the book with these words: “Blessed is the man.” If you read Psalm 1 closely, you will notice that it is not about feelings, but about being right with God. The “blessed man” is not the one who has amassed endless material gain, has a fun job, has become a YouTube star, or accumulated endless fun experiences. Rather, the blessed man is the one who “delights in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).
The Psalmist compares the blessed man, who prospers in all he does, to a healthy tree, planted by streams of water (v. 3). But the wicked man is driven away by the wind and ultimately perishes (v. 4-5). In his commentary on Psalms, Willem VanGemeren explains what blessedness means in this passage:
The formula “Blessed is the man” evokes joy and gratitude, as man may live in fellowship with his God. Blessedness is not deserved; it is a gift of God. God declares sinners to be righteous and freely grants them newness of life in which he protects them from the full effects of the world under judgment (Gen 3:15–19). Outside of God’s blessing, man is “cursed” and ultimately leads a meaningless life (Eccl 1:2). The word “happy” is a good rendition of “blessed,” provided one keeps in mind that the condition of “bliss” is not merely a feeling. Even when the righteous do not feel happy, they are still considered “blessed” from God’s perspective. He bestows this gift on them. Neither negative feelings nor adverse conditions can take his blessing away.