According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, here is the secret of happiness:
1. Accrue wealth, power, and prestige. Then lose it.
2. Spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.
3. Make someone else really, really rich.
4. Never ever join The Beatles.
Interested in more? Check the video below. It runs about 21 minutes.
For Christians (and everyone else for that matter), I think the research that Gilbert presents here is important. He presents two kinds of happiness: “synthesized happiness” and “natural happiness.” Synthesized happiness is happiness that we create in our minds when we don’t get or can’t have what we want. Natural happiness is happiness we have when we get what we want. And we think that natural happiness is far superior to synthesized happiness. Gilbert points out that our consumption-driven economy depends greatly on our continuing to think that way. But in reality, synthesized happiness is at least as powerful and true, if not more so. This is the sort of happiness possessed by people who have been through tragedy, suffering, and hardship but remain happy.
The apostle Paul seems to relate this sort of happiness throughout his difficulties. A couple of examples are in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 and in 6:3-10 where he refers to himself and his companions as continuing in aliveness and joy despite having to survive incredible obstacles and hardships. His most astute reflection on this is in 12:6-10, in which he refers to a “thorn in my flesh.” He pleads with Christ to take this affliction away (what it was exactly we don’t know, scholars continue to debate it). That prayer being answered would be the “natural happiness” of thinking getting what we want will make us happy. But Jesus does not take it away, instead teaching Paul a lesson that enables him to achieve “synthesized happiness”: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”
Happiness grows in the soil of constraint—having to find the happiness in where you are, who you’re with, and what you’ve got. Misery grows in the soil of too much freedom to get what you want—searching for happiness in what and who and where you think you want. Paul was constrained by Christ and the mission Christ set before him, but discovered that was where happiness was truly to be found.
Where have you and I found true happiness? When will we give up demanding “natural happiness” and embrace the reality of “synthesized happiness” that comes from things like faith, discipleship, morality, mission, and covenant?