The Adventure of Happiness: Introduction
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote you: she shall bring you to honor, when you embrace her. She shall give your head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver.
– Proverbs 4.7-9, KJV
I used to be the happiest person in the world.
In college I began coaching sports camps. The camps were a mix of sport-specific instruction and Christian spirituality. Each day, one of the coaches would give their “testimony”, telling the students how they became a Christian and why the students should follow suit. My opening statement was always, “I’m the happiest person in the world.” I would describe my faith as the ultimate source of my happiness, promising that the students could compete for the title if they, too, would begin to follow God.
But one day, I made the statement and it immediately rang false. I called myself a liar, internally, and barely made it through my spiel. That was the last time I offered to give my testimony, and I wasn’t sure what had happened. My external circumstances were largely the same, and I hadn’t experienced any major setbacks or tragedies. But I was no longer happy.
For many years after, I resigned myself to grasping the few moments of happiness as they came. I wasn’t unhappy. But happiness was the bright interruption of my day or, too often, my week. Happiness was no longer the defining characteristic of my life. It’s not accurate to paint myself as a miserable wretch, but I consider a happy person to be someone who is mainly happy most of the time, with grouchiness or fatigue or depression as temporary setbacks rather than competing characteristics.
“Trying to be perpetually positive can be down right stressful.”
– Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett, The Illustrated Happiness Trap, 10.
This book tells the story of how I learned to be happy again. And again. It’s the chronicle of the many techniques, activities, and thought processes I’ve been cultivating over the last twenty years in an effort to experience again what I took for granted in college.
Happiness is not something you achieve once and for all. Like biceps, happiness has to be exercised, cultivated, and maintained. If you neglect your happiness, unhappiness will re-absorb you. You’ll have fatty tissue in the underarms of your joy.
We are happy because of what we do and because of who we are becoming. By “what we do” I mean that happiness is available to us, increasingly, as we shift from lives of passivity to activity; from thinking to doing; and from defending to iterating. By “who we are becoming” I mean we are happy not because we don’t have to change, but because we can renew our minds, govern our mouths, guard our hearts, and use our legs. And in all this, we are not restrained by history, association, birth, personality, or circumstance.
Happiness is a muscle, a skill, a way of being that can and must be exercised.
“Happiness is not something that happens…it does not depend on outside events, but rather on how we interpret them. Happiness in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 2.
Happiness is not the natural state of human beings. Contrary to popular belief, if you’re not happy, that doesn’t mean you’re defective. In fact, the normal thinking processes of the human mind tend to create misery. None of us will ever totally get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. You can’t even control your thoughts and feelings. But you can control which thoughts and feelings to empower, to act upon, and to govern your life. The goal is to live in such a way that every moment both sustains and contributes to your overall happiness.
“As a therapist, once in a while, I would help a patient get rid of all his anger and anxiety and sadness. I thought I would then get a happy patient. But I never did. I got an empty patient. And that is because the skills of flourishing—of having positive emotion, meaning, good work, and positive relationships—are something over and above the skills of minimizing suffering.”
– Martin Seligman, Flourish, 54.
We can’t experience the abundant life God intends for his Creation simply through material wealth, therapeutic counsel, and medication. Being comfortable is not the same as being happy. Being medicated is not the same as being well. Happiness may well include financial stability, therapy and meds, but it is certainly not exhausted—or guaranteed—by these things. Happiness includes loving and serving others, meaningful friendships, joy at work, a healthy and active lifestyle, savoring and enjoying everyday pleasures and ordinary tasks. Happiness involves a more enriching life of shadowing God and healing the world.
Happiness is not a straight gift from God—meaning, neither spirituality nor morality nor any combination of the two will guarantee happiness. Happy and holy aren’t the same; neither are success and happiness, fame and happiness, or even virtue and happiness. And yet, we shy away from talking about how to be happy for fear of being shallow, trite, or ignoble.
This is evidenced by the literally thousands of unhappy missionaries, woeful nuns, and cloistered grouches studiously poring over scripture yet remaining uncontaminated by joy. But that doesn’t mean God is removed from the equation. Being holy is different than being happy. Being virtuous is no guarantee of gladness. Think of God as the One who allows you to be happy. But the final push, the thing that makes it all work, is you. God gives you the freedom to enjoy life as he intended, but you’ve got to make it happen. You can’t fully appreciate it without the Lord, and even with God you can still fail to appreciate precisely how good it is. God is the ultimate source of our happiness, but he’s no guarantee. Funny to say that, but the truth is God + you = you + God, which means you’ve got the opportunity to get in his way. You can blow it for him, but he’s willing to take a risk on a lousy partner.
This book is divided into two halves: part one: who you are, and part two: where you live. Each of the chapters within these sections focuses around an image that will serve as a governing metaphor for the various arenas of happiness. Again, much of the material explores how I applied this knowledge in my own life to great effect. At the end of each chapter, there will also be a HACK—a simple trick or tool you can apply immediately to begin working toward greater happiness. Most of these HACKs will seem overly simplistic, but I promise you that if you put them into practice you will notice a change in the way you feel very soon.
Many times in this book I will make strong recommendations. Commands, even. You might read these and feel like I’m being intolerant. Or mean. Or that some extraneous circumstances might mean you shouldn’t do what I’m suggesting and you feel trapped. Relax. Chill. Feel free to ignore everything I’m telling you. I’m not the ultimate authority on your life. This is just me, talking. I’m trying to share all that I’ve learned about how to be happy, and a lot of what I’ve learned feels pretty intense, and will undoubtedly be communicated with some passion, because it’s stuff I learned while I was unhappy. And being unhappy sucks. So when you’re unhappy, and you figure out why, then you want to change fast and that fast-paced change is often accompanied by a face-palming frustration that you didn’t change earlier. So the intensity grows. Now that I’m trying to share all of that, it’s probably going to feel like I’m grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you, screaming in your face like the Drill Sergeant of Gladness. My apologies. Just take what you like and ignore the rest. After all, it would be woefully ironic if my book on happiness made you miserable.
“We are conditioned, but not determined, by various factors to be more or less happy…so we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness.”
– Frederic Lenoir, Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide, 7.
This book is for normal people. Normal people have jobs and take care of their responsibilities. Normal people need to do things like budget, shop for groceries, schedule around their kids’ activities, finish school, work. This is not a book for monks or nuns. If you are professionally spiritual or suffer from a preconceived infatuation with your own specialness, you will hate everything you read in the following pages.
That’s why this is called The Adventure of Happiness—because it’s about who you are and where you live. It’s not focused on the research concerning happiness, though we are informed and will reference some of that research when making a scientific point.
“Trying to find the Big Answer to the problem of living is like trying to eat one Big Meal so that you will never have to worry about being hungry.”
– Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, 142.
This is a book about what, specifically, you can DO to be happy. If you follow the advice within these pages, you will be happier. You will have more energy. You will have better sex. You will be less fatigued. You will enjoy your job. And you will have fun figuring it all out. It won’t be easy. It won’t be immediate. But it will be successful. Trust me. There’s nothing in here I haven’t tried a thousand times. And there’s strong evidence to suggest that these aren’t just solutions that have and will work for me; no, these are evidence-based claims about what every human being can do to be happier.
I’m not pretending that I’m the perfect example of how to live life to the fullest. But I maintain that my trajectory has been from unhappy to happier and the trajectory continues. So much of The Adventure of Happiness is about dealing with life’s garbage. Getting happy involves removing the trash and finding your smile. Staying happy means ducking some garbage with a grin and catching other garbage early enough that the clean-up is quicker and easier than before. But you won’t ever be trash-free. And sometimes trash stinks and sticks so your happiness will momentarily be compromised. This book will help. And hopefully it’ll allow your trajectory toward eternal and enduring happiness to be both steeper and quicker than mine. This isn’t about stapling a smile to your face and pretending you’re happy when, in fact, you’re miserable. You won’t ever be encouraged to falsify joy. Neither is this about all the reasons you’re unhappy. Too many books spend too much time diagnosing why people are unhappy when the actual practices that contribute to our happiness are largely the same. The obstacles differ; the path remains.
So grab your bullwhip and fedora, your lightsaber and astromech, your batarangs and ankle-boots, and get a move on.
A word about the Bible.
“Religious Americans are clearly less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, divorce, and kill themselves. They are also physically healthier and they live longer. Religious mothers of children with disabilities fight depression better, and religious people are less thrown by divorce, unemployment, illness, and death. Most directly relevant is the fact that survey data consistently show religious people as being somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious people.”
– Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 59.
You’ll notice I reference the Bible many times during this book. That’s natural given my own beliefs, upbringing, and vocation as a Christian minister. While I do believe the foundations of abundant life are found in the Bible, I have referred more to modern philosophy, positive psychology, and neuro-science to support my strong belief that everyone can be exceedingly, enduringly happy.
This, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he spoke about abundant life in John 10.10, saying, “I have come that you might have life, and life to the full.” In contrast to the common error of today’s Christian assumptions, the purpose of following Jesus is not to go to heaven when you die, but to live abundantly on earth as it is in heaven. We were made by God to live like God and enjoy God’s Creation. For the term abundant life to have any meaning at all, it must include—at the very least—happiness. But this happiness cannot be momentary or circumstantial. True happiness endures despite our circumstances, which has led many theologians to speak about human flourishing and shalom. Much of the conversation here centers on autotelic activity (auto, self; telos, goal), meaning doing self-motivated, self-rewarding stuff in order to become the person God originally designed.
One of the most common misconceptions within contemporary Christianity is the notion that happiness is unspiritual. Some believe that happiness is transitory and, therefore, ungodly; that happiness represents an unhealthy dependence upon what is happening and therefore ignores the reality that Christ has called us to pick up our crosses and follow him. In my mind, people must ignore an incredible amount of positive scriptural affirmations in order to piece this theology of misery together, among them:
I will be happy and rejoice in you! I will sing praises to you, O sovereign One! (Psalm 9:2, NET)
You will fill me with joy when I am with you. You will make me happy forever at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11, NIrV)
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11, ESV)
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10, ESV)
Yahweh your God is among you, a warrior who saves. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will bring you quietness with His love. He will delight in you with shouts of joy. (Zephaniah 3:17, HCSB)
I have told you this to make you as completely happy as I am. (John 15:11, CEV)
Others believe that happiness is counterfeit joy; meaning that joy is genuine Christian virtue and happiness is the worldly, largely external, and impermanent consolation prize. Here again, this is terrible theology, as the words for happiness and joy in all biblical languages are synonyms, not opposites.
– Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2015), 180.
Again, I think both lines of thought are exceedingly erroneous and dangerous, but I don’t want to get side-tracked into a biblical argument. Randy Alcorn’s exhaustive book, Happiness, addresses these in detail and I recommend it for anyone who requires a biblical justification to be happy. For my part, I am firmly convinced that God designed us for passion, adventure, romance, and creativity; that God wants us to be happy; and that happiness is available to all of God’s people right now “on earth as it is in heaven.”
I’ve limited the majority of the scriptures employed to the books of Solomonic Wisdom—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Traditionally, these books are attributed to King Solomon of Israel (reign c.970-931BCE), the wisest man to have ever lived. He spent much of his life pursuing happiness and I thought he would make an interesting conversation partner for The Adventure of Happiness. I read each of his books with a family member: Proverbs with my daughter Anna, who characterized the personifications of Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly as figures from Mr. Men and Little Miss; Ecclesiastes with my teenage son, Jacob, who greatly enjoyed the cynicism and boredom so closely mirroring his own; and Song of Solomon with my wife, Carmel, who was always suspicious that I wanted to role play as we read (we didn’t).
Here is a brief overview of each work of Solomonic wisdom.
Proverbs, An Intro
A manual for living, for learning what’s right and just and fair
– Proverbs 1.4 MSG
What is a proverb? Wisdom captured in a sentence.
Proverbs is the biblical book of wisdom, and the biblical definition of wisdom is living well. That entails not only knowing what’s right, but also performing what’s right. It’s right thought and right action. And we need that reminder. Many in our world claim to know what’s right, but only a select few seem capable of constraining themselves to do it.
So. Read Proverbs. Because wisdom and self-control must be learned like other complex forms of experience, like mature political judgment, for example.
“Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves. It has virtually nothing to do with mere information or knowledge. A college degree is no proof of wisdom. Nor is wisdom primarily concerned with keeping us out of moral mud puddles, although it does have a profound moral effect on us.”
Eugene Peterson, The Message introduction to Proverbs
Ecclesiastes, an Intro
How wonderful to be wise, to analyze and interpret things.
Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its harshness.
– Ecclesiastes 8.1, NLT
Ecclesiastes is, perhaps, the first book ever written on happiness. It’s one man’s pursuit across all disciplines, with unlimited resources, for the length and breadth of his life. It plays with the abandon of Richard Branson and the lawlessness of a Saudi prince; it explores the philosophy of Nietzsche, Sartre, and Kierkegaard in the hedonism of Hugh Hefner. It’s a no-holds-barred, up-yours, pursuit of meaning.
And I love it.
The writer, traditionally Solomon, begins by exploring all of the expected avenues of supposed happiness: wealth, power, ambition, sex. But none of these satisfy. In the end, every human being will die and that makes all our dreams and ambitions feel like empty vanity. Meaningless—a chasing after the wind. But, as Rabbi Harold Kushner once pointed out, the author of Ecclesiastes claims that despite the evidence supporting life has no meaning, “there is something inside me which will not permit me to accept that conclusion.”
“If logic tells us that life is a meaningless accident, says Ecclesiastes at the end of his journey, don’t give up on life. Give up on logic. Listen to that voice inside you which prompted you to ask the question in the first place. If logic tells you that in the long run, nothing makes a difference because we all die and disappear, then don’t live in the long run. Instead of brooding over the fact that nothing lasts, accept that as one of the truths of life, and learn to find meaning and purpose in the transitory, in the joys that fade. Learn to savor the moment, even if it does not last forever. In fact, learn to savor it because it is only a moment and will not last. Moments of our lives can be eternal without being everlasting.”
– Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, 141.
Song of Solomon, an Intro
Kiss me and kiss me again, for your love is sweeter than wine.
- Song of Solomon 1.2, NLT
Does it surprise you that God takes pleasure in our lovemaking? It shouldn’t. If anyone understands the capacity for human pleasure it must certainly be the architect of human anatomy. God made our bodies a circus—a carnival of oohs and aahs, where the best riders are awarded the most spectacular prizes.
“A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job.”
– Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 4.
It surprises some people that the Bible contains erotic poetry. After all, the aim is not to describe, but to inspire. To elicit. The poet plays with words the way a good lover plays with their spouse. Nothing is direct. Nothing is quick. There are teases. Hints. Promises of things to come.
But the Song of Solomon—at the very least—serves to balance out the foibles of Kings and the violence of Judges. It’s a good reminder that all of life—not just the nice bits—is lived with the awareness of God’s perpetual presence and of the opportunity for his pleasure.
God is present when we are in love and God is present when we make love. It is God who teaches us about love in its fullest and God who helps us recover when our love has been spurned. God does not shy away from the most intimate or embarrassing moments of human life. And it is the awareness of God’s presence that allows us to avoid the two most common errors about sexuality: the belief that every sexual desire is good; and the belief that every sexual desire is evil.
God wants to bloom our understanding of sex. We’ve got to learn more about its boundaries and pleasures, taboos and joys.
“It is a double love story, vertical and horizontal, divine and human. The two great commandments are to love God and to love neighbor. Thus this love poem is to be interpreted on two levels, divine and human. The bridegroom symbolizes God, but he is also any man, literally, and the bride symbolizes the soul, but she is also every woman, literally.”
– Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 100.