Happiness, Arthur Brooks, and the Bible

I should begin this post by acknowledging that the Bible is God’s Word on, especially, how He wants us to live, and it ought to be followed whether or not doing so makes us happy.  Indeed, there’s no question but that sometimes following the Word will lead to short-term suffering, up to and including death.

On the other hand, God loves us and I don’t imagine Him up there in Heaven trying to come up with ways to hurt and humiliate us:  That’s what Satan down in Hell spends his time doing.  What’s more, it seems to me that as a general matter following the Word leads to human happiness and flourishing.

Which brings us to Arthur Brooks, an academic and the former head of the American Enterprise Institute, who has devoted much time in recent years to researching and writing about human happiness.  In doing so he has read a lot of the social science literature on this topic and boiled it down to a few principles, for which we should all be grateful:  It’s not only wonderful to have some good information about how to be happy, but also not to have to spend a lot of time wading through social science literature.

Here are those principles in a nutshell:  (1) Happiness is determined by a combination of genetic makeup, external circumstances, and habit; we can never control the first, of course, and often cannot control the second; but we can control our habits (to which we now turn).  (2) We are happier when the gap between what we want and what we have is smaller rather than larger.  (3) Happy people tend to focus on faith, family, and friends, and to have some vocation they find satisfying and meaningful.

If you think about it, this is all quite consistent with Scripture.  The importance of a focus on faith, family, and friends, for example, follows from Jesus’ two great commandments (which is also what He said the Old Testament boils down to):  We are to love God and to love our fellow human beings.  There is, likewise, no shortage of Scriptural warnings against the acquisitiveness that commonly causes a large gap between what we have and what we want:  Consider, to give just two examples, the Tenth Commandment’s prohibition of covetousness and St. Paul’s warning that love of money is the root of all evil.

I don’t know that the Bible says much about happiness and genetic makeup, but it certainly acknowledges that external circumstances can make us unhappy, and it has helped give countless people the wisdom and strength to withstand those times of trial.

Finally, as to a vocation that is satisfying and meaningful, while it is not what we would call a day job, we are all called upon to fulfill the Great Commission, are we not?  In any event, bearing in mind what the Bible has to say about what ought to be satisfying and meaningful to us is helpful in choosing the right vocation and following it in the right way. And, like it or not, we all have life as a vocation, and living it as God wants us to — to return to the principal focus of the Word — gives it purpose and meaning, rather than leaving it a tale told by an idiot.