By David Hegg
Now that football has ended, we baseball fans can look forward to spring training, and the undiluted joys of another Major League Baseball season. Remember? Baseball is supposed to be the great American pastime. But it appears to me that the great American pastime is no longer baseball, or for that matter, anything even remotely related to sport. No, it is much more consuming than any passion for a team or city could be. It is the addiction we have to happiness.
Our days have become a constant pursuit of this feeling. From the moment the alarm announces the day, our default settings move us in line with our pre-set preferences in a harried attempt to squeeze happiness — even small amounts! — out of every task, every thought, every moment.
We look for it in a cup of coffee, the newspaper, and some moments of quiet. We tune in to find it on our favorite radio station as we drive to work, hoping to get a shot of happiness by out-maneuvering the other cars for a prime spot on the on-ramp. We get a little dose when the semi in front of us on the freeway exits, leaving us four whole car lengths of space, which we quickly cover with a happy little push on the gas pedal.
And so it goes.
We go through the day, using carefully honed strategies to attract bits and pieces of happiness, all in an attempt to hold at bay the truth that gnaws at us from inside. The truth that this world, with its demands and complexities, its consistent injustices, its decay and brokenness, and its pervasive declaration that we are truly powerless to control our destiny — much less the traffic or our children’s health! — appears to be an invincible storm that is progressively eroding whatever optimism we may have about life. And, sensing that there is little we can do to stop the erosion, we convince ourselves that little shots of happiness, intentional indulgences, can get us through the day. And for a time, this works. Until the day when all the little things we have programmed to bring happiness simply don’t anymore. The exciting has become mundane.
So, I have a suggestion, which is actually more of a theory, and perhaps better yet, it is a research project. What if, in seeking happiness, we are actually looking for the wrong thing? What if happiness — that emotional lift we gain as a response to some circumstance — turns out to be what saltwater is to the thirsty? What if happiness turns out to be the very cause of the disease for which it claims to be a cure? That is, what if happiness really doesn’t satisfy our longing, but only serves to increase our need for more and more of it? Can it be that we could become addicted to the pursuit of happiness, and all the while not realize that, for all our efforts, the despair and discouragement that serve as the very wallpaper of our lives have not been at all diminished, but have actually become more and more prominent as the temporary excitement of circumstance-induced happiness comes in packages of diminished duration?
I believe I have experienced this, over and over, all of my life. And I think I’m not the only one who is tempted almost every day to find some new spigot of excitement, some new experience — maybe a new sports car! — to infuse my life with large doses of happiness. But I believe there is a better way.
I have come to believe that happiness, while nice if and when it happens, isn’t worth pursuing. On the other hand, joy is. While happiness is the result of circumstances, joy is the fruit of beauty. And here’s the good part: Just as the duration of the happiness is tied absolutely to the frequency and duration of the circumstance, so also joy, both in its intensity and its longevity, is tied absolutely to the depth and duration of beauty.
If drinking a nice cup of coffee makes you happy, that’s good, but only for a little while. But, if while drinking that cup of coffee you come to enjoy the beauty of friendship, you’ll tap into something much more long-lasting. Joy is the sense of well-being that permeates our souls as we come to appreciate the beauty around us.
For me, life is worth living, and actually satisfying because I am constantly being refreshed by those sources of beauty that cannot be eroded by the circumstances of this world. Loving my wife comes immediately to mind. And my wonderful children. Sure, circumstances flood our existence daily, bringing sadness and pain in varying amounts. Yet, in seeking to see the beauty of our love, of the lives we are blessed to live together, the smiles, and hugs, and trust, and mutual respect we share — in seeking beauty rather than happiness we find the joy that is not diminished by adverse circumstances. In the midst of pain, there is joy. In the midst of sadness, there can be joy.
So, my friend, stop chasing after happiness, and instead look for beauty. You will find that beauty is found in all the good places — in family, in friendship, in creation, in sharing great food and wine with friends, in taking a walk hand-in-hand, and even in a tearful goodbye. Understand these for what they really are — previews of heaven, meant to remind us that we were never meant to be content with what the circumstances of this life can provide us. As Jesus Christ came to show us, we are meant to live above such things, understanding the beauty of new life, and the eternal joy that can be ours in Him, here and now.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.