“Everything sucks. Might as well find something to smile about.”
Thus spoke the great 21st-century skeptic philosopher Gregory House in the Season 2, Episode 16 episode of House, entitled "Safe."
Although the connection between his two statements is tenuous at best (one could just as easily say "Everything sucks. So, why smile about anything at all?"), we can give him some credit. Dr. House still finds life worth living.
House is not known for his cheery disposition. In fact, his bedside manner is atrocious. He lies to his boss. He deceives his co-workers. And he's a jerk to his patients. They're puzzles to be solved rather than people to be healed, and he's more interested in diagnosing than curing them. But he's brilliant. He's the guy you'd want working your case, though he's not going to hold your hand through it and pretend everything will be all right. He's been around the block a few times. He's got some scars. And his fine-tuned B.S.-meter won't let you get away with anything even remotely Polyanna-esque. Dr. House is not a pessimist. He's a realist, and he knows how elusive that great white whale we call "happiness" truly is.
Happiness is a slippery term. We all want it. We're all supposed to pursue it. But nobody seems to know how to obtain it.
Here's something worth asking, though: Does "the pursuit of happiness" have any place in the life of a believer, or is it an innately selfish endeavor? That's a tricky question, and it depends on how we define happiness. If happiness is nothing more than a quest for personal fulfillment, then YES—that is selfishness by definition, because there is no room for our neighbor in such a scheme. When my own singular, purpose-driven pursuits are the sole objective, loving my neighbor becomes at best a drudgery and at worst an impossibility.
But, what if we asked the question a different way: Does God want me to flourish as a human being? And to that question, the Bible unequivocally answers "Yes." So, perhaps a more Biblical definition of happiness would be the following: Being content with our lot in life.
Ironically, one of the most pessimistic books of the Bible--Ecclesiastes—has some profound insight into this. Like Dr. House, the author of this book (Qoheleth) has been around the block a few times. He's seen some stuff. A wise, grizzled Grandfather sitting in his rocking chair, he spits into his tobacco can, beckons his grandkids toward him and says, "Gather round, kids. Listen up. Your Grandpa has something to tell you." And then our cynical, curmudgeonly old Grandpa says something quite unexpected:
“There is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil... this is the gift of God... so I commend the enjoyment of life.”
In case you're wondering, YES, this is the exact same man who begins and ends his book with this uplifting little diddy: "Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!"
But it makes sense. Because he has tried it all. He has pursued everything "under the sun:" Wisdom, possessions, riches, power, sex. And he has found that none of it has lasting value. Qoheleth knows what DOESN'T bring fulfillment, so he of all people is uniquely-qualified to speak to us about happiness. And he offers us more than a few pearls of wisdom. Here are three of them:
Stop Trying So Hard.
Seriously! Stop trying so hard to be happy. The harder you try, the less likely it is that you'll actually find any kind of contentment in life. The more we pursue happiness, the more it slips through our fingers. Chasing happiness is like trying to herd the wind; it's an exercise in futility. It's like falling asleep: The more you try, the less likely you'll get to sleep. Happiness is a byproduct, rather than an "end" in and of itself. In Ecclesiastes 3, immediately after listing the various "times and seasons"—good and bad—which befall us in life, Qoheleth laments, but "what do workers gain from their toil?" (Ecclesiastes 3:9). He's frustrated and anxious that the payoff is not always proportional to the effort. However, much blood and sweat and tears we pour into our endeavors; there are no guarantees that things will pan out for us. More elbow grease does not equal more control over the times and seasons in a broken world. They appointed by God, and our ceaseless striving gets us no closer to living our best life now.
Enjoy The Little Things.
Ecclesiastes 2:24: "A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil." Food. Family. A good bottle of wine. Our God is not utilitarian, but actually basks in the glow of His creation. And He calls it all "good!" He is a God of stuff, and He wants us to take joy in that stuff. Why did God create sunsets, for instance? Have you ever thought of that? Functionally, they don't serve a purpose. God could have made the transition from day to night instant, like flipping a light switch. But there's something about a sunset that He deems good and beautiful and worth lingering over. Christians, of all people then, should eat and drink and be merry. Not "for tomorrow we die," but "for tomorrow we will live forever." Life eternal gives us the boldness to find enjoyment in God's good, earthy gifts in the here-and-now.
Remember: You're Gonna Die.
Depressing, right? Why would anyone—especially someone in the glow of youth—ever want to ponder their own death? Death is the last thing we prefer to think about, and this advice strikes us as odd. But wait...it gets even ODDer (Ecclesiastes 7:2): "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone. The living should take this to heart." In other words, a funeral is more honest than a frat party, because it doesn't try to escape the reality that we're not invincible. Qoheleth says there is great value in regularly contemplating our mortality, because, in the midst of all of life's Uncertainties, death is the one certain thing. The graveyard is the common destiny of everyone, and coming to grips with that truth helps put things in perspective. Life is short. We don't get to be here all that long. The sooner we let this reality sink in, the better. And this is actually freeing because it reveals that not as much rides on us or our accomplishments as we think. In the cosmic scheme of things, we tend to overestimate our own importance. We are dust, and to dust we will return.
This side of Heaven, happiness will always remain fragmentary, fractured, and fleeting. In the shadow of the Cross, we are never afforded more than glimpses of the "good life." Yet it is precisely here at the Cross that all human pursuits, including the pursuit of happiness, are brought to an end; where we become the "pursued" rather than the "pursuer." And it is here that we discover that the ultimate joy is not ours at all, but His (Hebrews 12:2): "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the JOY set before him, endured the Cross, scorning it's shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
For the joy set before Him, Christ pursued us to death. And it is in Christ alone—our Sabbath—that true rest from our endless quest for happiness lies.
Or, in the enduring words of St Augustine:
“This is the happy life, and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you, Lord. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else.”