The ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ Won't Make You Happy
- Gregory Coles
- 2017 15 May
When I was kid, I had a habit of squeezing my hand into small spaces. Narrow-mouthed jars, cracks between rocks and tree branches, metal fences with barely an inch between bars… You name it, I’d try to squeeze my hand into it, just to prove I could. My pre-pubescent brain kept forgetting that tight spaces were usually easier to get my hand into than they were to pull it back out of. Again and again, I got stuck.
At first I would laugh, assuming that I just needed to turn my hand at a different angle or pull a little harder. But when that didn’t work, my laughter would turn into nervous panting. The harder I pulled, the bigger my hand seemed to grow. Beads of sweat would cover my forehead as I imagined worst-case scenarios. I might have to saw off my arm to escape. I might graduate high school with a mason jar or a length of fence still dangling from my wrist. As I became more terrified—as I strained more desperately to escape—I became more hopelessly trapped.
Sometimes, the more we want something, the more impossible it becomes to achieve.
I always got out of those tight squeezes in the end, and I never did have to cut my arm off. The secret to escaping, I learned, was to stop trying so hard. In order to make my hand smaller, I needed to relax it—and I could only do that if I quit worrying about being trapped. To get what I wanted, I had to forget how much I wanted it.
Sometimes, in order to get what we want most of all, we have to stop chasing it.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of my life chasing things, believing I’ll be happier once I reach some distant goal. The weekend will come. Christmas vacation will come. I’ll get the job, sign the contract, earn the promotion, win the award. I’ll meet my celebrity crush, fall in love, and live out my days in a mansion along the French Riviera.
And yet, once I reach the goals I’ve been chasing after, I keep discovering that those things don’t really satisfy me, and I begin the chase again. The more I try to be happy, the more happiness eludes me. (Then again, I still haven’t met my celebrity crush—maybe that’s what I’m missing!)
What if being happy is like trying to pull your hand out of a tight space? What if trying harder only dooms us to failure? What if the pursuit of happiness will never actually make us happy?
We in America are accustomed to believing that “the pursuit of happiness” is a good thing. According to Thomas Jefferson, it’s one of the inalienable rights endowed by our Creator, and the Declaration of Independence guarantees that we’ll be allowed to keep pursuing happiness as long as we live. Our traditions and our society are built on the assumption that the path to flourishing as human beings is found by trying to flourish.
But the longer I live, the more I think we’ve gotten happiness all wrong. I think we need to admit that the pursuit of happiness is a game rigged against us. It can’t work, by definition—because happiness is something we get when we’re not looking for it.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes some radical claims about happiness: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:3-4). The word “blessed” might seem a little weird and stuffy to us, but the Greek word it translates, makarios, simply means “happy.” In other words: “Happy are the poor in spirit. Happy are those who mourn.”
What?the disciples and crowds must have thought. You’re crazy, Jesus! Those who mourn can’t be happy.
But the contradiction didn’t seem to bother Jesus. He knew that true happiness couldn’t be found in the places his listeners were looking for it. The logic of the kingdom of heaven is all upside down. Victory is won on a cross. The people who want to keep their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake are the ones who find life (Matthew 16:25).
Happiness is hiding in the places we least expect it. It’s hiding in our costly obedience to the king of the universe, even in the midst of our mourning. It’s hiding in the meaning and purpose we discover when we give our whole selves to loving God and loving others. We flourish when we’re so focused on living a life of love that we forget to think about our own flourishing. Happiness is found in a life that’s not lived about ourselves.
“Delight yourself in the Lord,”says David in Psalm 37:4, “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” We weren’t designed to chase our own desires. We weren’t designed to pursue happiness. We were designed to pursue God, to spend ourselves fully on the cause of love, and to find along the way that we’ve become happy without even trying.
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