Tuesday, February 11, 2014


God made us to be happy. I ask you with sincerity, not to respond with any assumptions that I do not think we should be happy. I am not ant-happiness, but rather quite the opposite. I believe happiness to be possible, in fact, I believe joy is promised to us by Christ. However, my point is to show that the Western worldview that we should pursue happiness has resulted in great unhappiness. 

First, for clarity sake I will define the word happiness. For the purpose of this exercise I will use my personal arbitrary definition of the Western (and more specifically American) idea of happiness as a momentary or prolonged feeling of comfort, satisfaction or pleasure.

This, of course is a philosophical piece of work and is not meant to reflect all anecdotal incidences but a general overall observation. 

Ancient Philosophies

There have been fleeting cults in ancient times that made happiness (or pleasure) the goal and purpose of life, such as the Hedonists, the Epicureans, the cult of Bacchus, etc. Hedonism taught that the greatest good was pleasure and the greatest evil was pain or suffering. So one should live one’s life pursuing pleasure and avoiding suffering. 

Epicureanism, a branch of hedonism, took a more pragmatic view and taught that discipline might not feel pleasurable at the moment, but would maximize one’s overall pleasure during life. They taught one should avoid gorging oneself at meals because pain might follow, and disciplining ones’ sexual appetites will maximize a lifetime of sexual gratification. While hedonism was the short sprint on indulging pleasure, the Epicurean took the marathon approach of: pace yourself. The goal is the same, maximize pleasure, minimize pain.

These cultural experiments in lifestyles utterly failed to bring the promised happiness, leading the great minds of all times to reject them. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all agreed that happiness is the fruit of the hard labor of cultivating a virtuous life. In fact, it is Aristotle who plainly stated that you cannot reach happiness if it is your goal.

Because of human nature, this failing hedonistic philosophy is often recycled throughout history.  Whatever the good intensions of the founding fathers and their enlightenment ideals, the “right” to pursue happiness has resulted in turning America into a hedonistic culture. They rejected the great Greek wisdom and chose the failing philosophical systems which pursue happiness as the end goal. This proves that humans fall prey to the positivism which believes that we can improve on, and make a success of that which is intrinsically flawed.  

Religion and the Pursuit of Happiness

In a general sense, religions do not teach that one should pursue happiness. The Hindu religion which has helped inspire much New Age Western thought does include in its basic premise that pleasure is to be sought, but even within this framework, Hindus teach that one should do no harm to self, others and the environment.

Evangelical Pastor John Piper wrote a book in the mid 1980’s called Christian Hedonism, which has inadvertently inspired much of the prosperity gospel, gladly admits that man does and should pursue pleasure as it is the greatest good, but then promotes that God is the great pleasure-giver and go to Him for man’s ultimate expression of pleasure. However he wants to twist it, the Bible never insinuates, implies or states that one should seek pleasure. Quite the opposite. Christ tells us that the gospel requires a self-sacrificing obedience of faith. We are to take up our cross and follow Him. And then by doing this, He will bring us into the Promised Kingdom of milk and honey. Absolute and eternal bliss is found at the end of the journey. Our earthly lives are not for pleasure or comfort, but for learning obedience through suffering, just as Christ did.

If there is Suffering, There is No God

This false notion of a God-given “right” to pursue happiness has become a de facto assumption of Christians. An example of this is Houston’s fabulously popular preacher, Joel Osteen whose underlying assumption to his prosperity gospel is that it is not God’s will for us to be humble, poor, meek and or have to suffer. Western Christianity has adopted this hedonistic philosophy that pleasure is the highest good and pain and suffering is the gravest evil. 

This erroneous worldview has birthed a generation of atheists who believe that if there is suffering in the world, then there is no God. For if pleasure is the greatest good and the point of life, and suffering is our greatest sin, then a God who would allow suffering must either not be good or must not be great or omnipotent. And they reject God altogether than accept an all knowing and all powerful God who would not get rid of suffering.

Evidence Against the Pursuit of Happiness as a Philosophy

If the right to pursue happiness resulted in happiness, then America should give irrefutable evidence of this.

Yet statistics show that more than half of marriages end up in divorce and the United States has the third highest divorce rate on the planet. One fourth of all U.S. citizens use legal anti-depressants and a huge percentage use illegal drugs or alcohol in order to cope making the US and Canada a huge drug haven for the world. We have a very high suicide rate compared to other nations. America and Russia run neck and neck with the highest homicides rates. In a recent survey, citizens of the United Arab Emirates as well as Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Israel and many other countries were found to be happier than Americans.

Why Pursuing Happiness Is Irrational

There is little evidence that humans are up to the task of knowing what makes themselves happy. If you ask a child what will make them happy they might suggest living in the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” A preteen might believe he would be happy having no parents and getting to smoke and drink and drive. A hormonal teenager may think happiness is being famous and letting your sexuality run wild. (In fact a lot of adults think this too.) Yet, look at Hollywood. Fame and fortune doesn’t seem to have made a lot of entertainers happy. In fact, people tend not to be motivated by an independent concern for what will make them happy, but they will act in ways that will allow them to be accepted into a peer group, which may not ultimately result in their happiness but will knowingly sabotage it. 


When I look at the news and statistics, as well as many people I know, I realize that something is wrong in America. Our pursuit of happiness has failed. To what degree that failure can be blamed on our philosophy is debatable, but I think the debate is absolutely vital in order to focus on solving the problem. 

The vast majority of human history has lived with the worldview that pursuing happiness does not result in happiness. Happiness had never been the goal, but in various forms happiness has always been seen as a result of living a virtuous life.

America has indoctrinated its citizenry into the worldview that they have a God-given right to pursue happiness. The predominate reason for the suffering I see in American families is that under the disguise of a Christian philosophy and worldview we substituted an Enlightenment one. This claim that God gives us the right to pursue happiness cannot be supported by history, nor by the Bible, nor in Christian theology. In most cases, we find absolute, self-defeating and opposite results.

I am not bringing this up as theoretical philosophy but for basic pragmatic reasons. We need to stop teaching and believing this because it is not working. And there is little evidence to suggest that continually repeating the experiment will yield better results. 

 The enlightenment was based on pure, humanistic, preservation and self-love. Christianity is based on self-giving and self-sacrificing. Christ, rather than encouraging His followers to find happiness in an independent-minded and self-centered system, commands us to sacrifice our selves, indeed even our very happiness to give happiness to others. 


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