What Makes People Happy?

CNN has asked 5 religious leaders to answer the question, “What makes people happy?” The answers, though just sound bites (did we expect anything else from CNN?) are interesting:

“Expert in mind-body healing” Deepak Chopra: “The most important thing to happiness is to make other people happy. There are other ways to happiness–when you express creativity, when you have meaning and purpose in your life, when you see opportunity instead of problems–but the fastest way to being happy is to make other people happy.”

My response: I understand that he means we find fulfillment and happiness in serving others, and I agree to some extent. But one thing I’ve learned in life is that you absolutely cannot make other people happy. It can’t be done. Happiness comes from what we do and what we are, not what others do for us. Too often we try so hard to make everyone else happy we make ourselves miserable.

“Humanist chaplain at Harvard University” Greg Epstein: “We know intuitively that perfect happiness does not exist–it is a fantasy that leads to disappointment or depression if we insist on chasing it as if we are entitled to it.

“However, there is so much imperfect happiness to enjoy as a byproduct of things we can do our best to achieve together: engaging relationships, good works, connection to loved ones and to humanity. These things, not belief in God, are why churches and temples work; and they’re why I believe in building humanist communities for the nonreligious.”

Me: I like this idea of “imperfect happiness” as coming from the things we do together as humans. Rather than Chopra’s focus on [i]making [/i]others happy, this emphasis on human connection as a means to doing good is quite appealing to me.

Jonathan Falwell, Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church: “Many people believe that happiness is a result of external situations in life. Unfortunately, that kind of happiness is short-lived if it is not accompanied by happiness stirring within the soul.

“The happiness that springs forth from the heart and soul is the only path to true satisfaction in life. And I believe that kind of happiness is found through a personal relationship with God accomplished through the sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus Christ. He is the source of soul satisfaction.”

Me: There’s something oddly self-absorbed in this approach. It’s as if nothing we do matters if we haven’t been saved (and to be fair, that is pretty much Falwell’s doctrinal position), so we can ignore everyone and everything and focus on our own satisfaction. Maybe I’m misinterpreting him, but this doesn’t sound right to me.

Harold Kushner, Rabbi: “Happiness is always a byproduct. You don’t achieve happiness by striving to be happy. You achieve happiness by striving to be a good person. And happiness shows up when you weren’t even watching.

“I discern two dimensions to happiness–one personal and one interpersonal. Happiness results from the fullest utilization of your talent. And finally, happiness results from knowing when you had made someone else’s life better.”

Me: Beautifully said. I have nothing to add.

Joel Osteen, Pastor, Lakewood Church: “I think that it is important to draw a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness is determined by one’s circumstances. On the other hand, joy is a more permanent state of being and is not determined by one’s present circumstances.

“A person can keep their joy even when things are going badly, when something temporarily makes them unhappy. I believe joy comes from having meaning and purpose in our life. God has a purpose for each and every one of us, and by putting our faith in God we can live a more joy-filled life.”

Me: I have heard this joy/happiness distinction all my life, but I don’t accept it. You can be happy when life sucks, and you can be unhappy when things are going well. But that definitional quibble aside, all he’s giving is a fairly empty platitude: God has a purpose, so have faith. (I realize that this is a quick soundbite article, but Osteen’s response is pretty vacuous.)

My take on happiness is that it reflects an approach to life, an attitude, if you will. It involves giving your best effort (see Rabbi Kushner’s response above), but it also recognizes that there is joy in imperfection, joy in the striving. It isn’t a solitary affair (sorry, Rev. Falwell) but something we do together as humans. The two great commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. I believe in God, but I also believe happiness doesn’t require faith in God, necessarily. I know lots of happy atheists, and they are those who simply find happiness in life as it is lived.

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5 Responses to What Makes People Happy?

  1. Reed Manson says:

    Happiness is doing what you want to do with your life with the people you want to do it with. (Bad prose of the day?)

    The human emotional system is a highly unreliable and capricious apparatus so even in ideal circumstances it can be difficult finding contentment. We do the best we can with what nature gave us.

    We often trade away some happiness for the sake of accomplishment and respect. I would love to spend my life in a small row boat in the middle of a gentle mountain lake smoking pot but I give that up to do something useful so that my mother isn’t ashamed of me.

  2. Ray Agostini says:

    I don’t believe anyone can obtain *complete* happiness in this life, and for me, I’d rather be depressed than obtain “happiness by illusion”, so to speak, based on false promises or suspicious theologies or ideologies too fantastic to believe. Happiness, IMO, is being who you are, even if that means, at some stage, coming to the stark realisation that you need to “rise higher”, and learn from life experiences. I think the “common denominator” with all of us is that we can always do better, be better, and purge the dross in us. We can learn to forgive, to be more merciful, and not least of all to ourselves. Life is too short to harbour grudges and regrets. The universe is a big place, with unknown potential and opportunity, beyond, perhaps, our mundane concerns. Happiness (perhaps?) means looking to something much larger and far more comprehensive than mortal ourselves?

  3. Tim says:

    Check out “The Lost Virtue of Happiness” by JP Moreland

  4. Chris says:

    I think you can obtain *complete* happiness in this life (do we have good evidence for other lives?). It just depends on how you define it.

    Our emotional system is actually really basic as it is evolved from a time when our needs were very basic. Emotions = Desire/expectation/need + fulfillment. However, our needs and desires have become much more complex. And now it is up to us to figure out how to use this emotional guidance system to evaluate if our desires can really be fulfilled at the moment.

    I’m of the idea that it’s better to manage your desires, expectations and needs than it is to focus on emotions. I like http://1dayhabit.com/cheerfulness-how-to-get-more-of-it/ and also his ‘Go Beyond the Evolutionary Limits of Your Mind’ PDF.

  5. It is weirdly comforting that we’re all on this quest for “happiness” and yet there is no agreement on what exactly that means. At least someone doesn’t have to worry about doing it wrong then. 😉

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