The Pursuit of Happiness


The January 16/23 issue of Time magazine had a series of articles on The Secrets of Happiness Experts. The same week my magazine arrived, I received an email from The Atlantic about their podcast series How to Build a Happy Life. One of the basic rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence is the pursuit of happiness, and two centuries later, that pursuit continues unabated. 

The articles and podcasts draw upon a wide range of science, psychology, social science, and philosophy experts. Much of their advice is insightful and helpful: get enough sleep and exercise, spend time with friends, have a hobby, enjoy nature, prayer and meditation, breathing exercises, and more. 

What is not clear is what happiness is. For some, it is a feeling of joy, others pleasure, yet others well-being. Perhaps it is ideally a condition more than a feeling, for feelings come and go. But in America, the individual pursuit of happiness has led to the idea that each individual can define happiness for himself or herself.

The American Founders had more definite ideas of happiness. Darrin M. McMahon, in his Time article The American Way of Happiness, cites Benjamin Franklin, who said happiness consists “In having a sound mind, a healthy body, a sufficiency of the necessaries and conveniences of life, together with the favor of God, and the love of mankind.” McMahon observes that Franklin speaks of sufficiency, not a surfeit, of necessities and that “to earn God’s favor and the love of mankind, one has to think about doing good not only for oneself but also for others…” (p. 47)

Except for Franklin’s belief that we earn God’s favor – Franklin never could grasp the concept of grace – this is a good definition. But if we want to go deeper, we must turn to John Wesley, who had much to say about happiness. 

For Wesley, we cannot have true happiness unless we have been given a new life in Christ and are growing in holiness. By holiness, Wesley means a heart governed by love for God and neighbor. 

To explain this new life, Wesley draws upon Paul’s phrase “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Righteousness is the same as holiness: love for God and neighbor. Peace and joy together are true happiness: the peace of Christ, which assures us of God’s love and acceptance, and the “calm, humble rejoicing in God” that is “wrought in the heart by the Holy Ghost” (“The Way to the Kingdom,” ¶ I.11)

Without this new life, none “can be happy even in this world. For it is not possible like things” that a person “should be happy who is not holy.” The reason is they have unholy tempers in the heart, and these sinful desires “are uneasy tempers.” (“The New Birth, ¶ III.3)

This points to the foundational reason holiness and happiness are linked. We were created to love God and one another – that is what it means to be created in God’s image. But unfortunately, humanity fell from that image. We can only have true happiness when we are restored to the way we were always intended to be, to love as God loves. To give us this life of love is why Christ came and what the Spirit does in the hearts and lives of all who are open to receive it by faith.