Pleasure takes many forms—physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. We have many words for emotional pleasure, including elation, euphoria, delight, bliss, and good cheer. But perhaps the best overarching word for this category of emotion is happiness. And boy, do we place heavy expectations on the shoulders of happiness—far more than it can ever meet. After all, the American life is supposed to be the pursuit of happiness, right? Happiness, like other forms of pleasure, is one element of a good life. It is not the point of life.
I know I’m going to alienate someone with this admission, but I’m going to stick my neck out and confess that I wasn’t “clapping along” to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” back when it was the most popular (and ubiquitous) song of 2014. It’s a fine song with an appealing sound, and it seems to make many people, well, happy. But I just couldn’t get into it because the lyrics sounded so much like a philosophy of life that has left many people bereft.
I’m a fairly hopeful person, and I absolutely believe in God’s goodness. I also love to laugh. And I definitely love to be happy. But I can’t say I believe “happiness is the truth.” Oddly enough, this lyric makes me sad because it presents an accurate summary of a worldview many people are hoping will bring them ultimate satisfaction. Building a life around their own happiness is the best they can come up with, and I can’t blame them. But I know it’s not enough.
As with other forms of pleasure, happiness is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good and wonderful thing. But again, it’s inadequate to sustain us as a reason for living or the truth around which our lives are built. Happiness is an important element of satisfaction, but it’s no antidote to dissatisfaction. People who have experienced a lot of happiness can be as miserable as anyone else. People who are happy one moment can be devastated the next. And for those who spend their lives chasing happiness, it will almost certainly lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Like all forms of pleasure, it’s fleeting, highly circumstantial, and subject to abuse.
So is the pursuit of happiness an empty chase or, worse, a wicked pastime? As with other forms of pleasure, many of us we are confused about whether it’s okay to pursue happiness. Maybe it’s because we see happiness as an all-or-nothing proposition: either I’m only happy or I’m only unhappy. My life is either a happy one or an unhappy one. It’s easy to believe that enjoying happiness requires banishing negative emotions. But we can experience happy moments in a sad life, and vice versa. We can laugh and cry at the same time. We have an incredible capacity for coexisting emotions if we’re willing and courageous enough to tap into it. Happiness serves us well when we recognize its limitations.
Instead, we are so often tempted to make happiness our god, our paramount goal in life, our stand-in for truth. Happiness is the normal state of being for exactly no one. When we consider it our only acceptable emotional circumstance, we miss out on the wealth of learning, depth of being, and extent of growth available in the majority of our experiences. In fact, like other forms of pleasure, happiness offers diminishing returns. It has more power when it’s not the only thing we know. I believe happiness is a good thing to pursue and enjoy when we can, without displacing our capacity for other emotions and without overriding our sense of mission and purpose that transcends our emotions and our circumstances.
Like the proverbial bluebird, happiness will come and go. So when it visits you, go ahead and be happy! And when you’re not, look forward to the times when you will enjoy it again. In the meantime, get comfortable with the wider range of emotions that fly in, settle, and sing their own songs in your unsatisfied life.
This post was excerpted from chapter 7 my of newest book, Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World. If you want to read more, you can find the book here or wherever you buy books.
Taken from Blessed Are the Unsatisfied by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2018 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
© 2018 Amy Simpson.