Most of us realize that the cliché, “You can’t buy the most important things in life” is true, but there are a lot of messages we
receive every day trying to convince us otherwise. Commercials and ads try to make us believe that life will be perfect if we have a certain car or that drinking the right beer will transport us to paradise. I have to admit that I really liked the Audi commercial
that included the two actors that play Spock in the old and new Star Trek movies, but I don’t think I’ll be buying an Audi. We know that the promises commercials make are not true, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded that, as long as we have the basics of food, shelter, clothing, and cell phones, more stuff doesn’t mean more happiness. (Yes, the cell phone comment was meant to be sarcastic.)
An article by an economist named John Ikerd details the lack of a correlation between wealth and happiness and hints at
some of the things that really do make people happy. Ikerd wrote:
The Founding Fathers of the United States proclaimed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to be “inalienable
rights” bestowed upon all by the Creator. Some early philosophers, called Hedonists, believed pursuit of happiness was a matter of individuals seeking sensory pleasure and avoiding sensory pain. However, most philosophers, including Aristotle, believed that happiness was inherently social in nature; that it could be realized by individuals only within the context of human relationships, friendship, family, and community. They believed we are inherently social beings, and thus, we need personal relationships with other people to make us happy. These philosophers also believed that happiness cannot be actively pursued, but instead, is the natural consequence of “right” relationships. They believed we are inherently moral beings, and thus, we are happy only if our thought and actions are ethically and morally “right.”
If the Hedonists were right, Americans would be the happiest humans ever to walk this planet. No people in human history have ever spent more money in the pursuit of sensory, individual pleasures. But there is growing evidence that the advocates of a social and moral philosophy of happiness were correct. As our pursuit of wealth has diminished our personal connectedness and our sense of moral purpose, we have become an increasingly unhappy people (John Ikerd, “In Pursuit of Happiness”).
As you probably know, Americans are not the happiest people in the world. This year, the Finns once again are the
happiest people in the world (see https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/rankings/happiness/). More stuff does not inevitably equal more happiness.
This also makes sense in terms of our faith. Our faith at its core is about relationship. Christians believe that God is Trinity,
Three and One. The Trinity – God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – shows us that the essence of reality, the fundamental ground of Being, is relationship. God is the eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God invites us into that dance, into the life and love and joy of the Trinity. We are not meant to be alone, and we can only find fulfillment and joy through relationships with God and other people. We can find pleasure in other places: Going shopping, playing video games by ourselves, reading alone, watching TV. There is nothing inherently bad about any of these things. In fact, they are often really good things. I would be very unhappy if I could not go off and read a book by myself on a regular basis. All of us have activities or hobbies or possessions that bring some happiness. It is only when we try to use things to feel joyful and complete that we lose out. We miss the point.
When we spend too much time pursuing our own pleasure, we lose something. We need to build relationships in order to be
whole. Even more importantly, we need to build right relationships – relationships that are based on love, respect, and trust. We need to build our lives on God’s love for us and our love for others. Is this way of life guaranteed to make you happy all the
time? Here’s the secret: no one is “happy” all the time. Living a life connected to God and working with God in the world is not about being “happy” all the time. Sometimes it does involve sacrifice and even suffering. Suffering comes into every life; there’s no avoiding it. So, if being “happy” means no pain, no sacrifice, no down days, then happiness is something we’ll never find.
God does not give us a formula for always having a smile on our faces or never feeling sad. Instead, God offers us
something better. God invites us into a deep, loving relationship with him and into life-giving relationships with each other. Jesus tells us that the most important commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is another affirmation that the most important things in the universe are relationships – our relationship with God and our relationships with the people around us. We are called to live these right relationships in our families, with our friends, with brothers and sisters in Christ. God doesn’t promise “happiness,” but God does promise joy and fulfillment to those who open themselves to the love God has for them and then share that love with others. And that promise is true.
“Those who pursue happiness never find it. Because joy and peace are extremely elusive, happiness is a will-o’-the-wisp, a phantom, and even if we reach out our hand to grasp it, it vanishes into thin air. God gives joy and peace not to those who pursue them but to those who pursue him, and strive to love. Joy and peace are found in loving and nowhere else” (John Stott, The Unforbidden Fruit).