Some remarks on the nature of happiness

Professor Don Hagner considers the nature of happiness

The problem of a definition

Happiness is not easy to define. That sometimes philosophical dog named Snoopy could do no better than to define happiness as 'a piece of fudge caught on the first bounce.'  Happiness is simple for dogs. It is not so simple for human beings. Indeed, it is what differentiates us from animals−human transcendence, the imago dei, and our fallen state−that makes happiness such a complicated and difficult matter for us.

What is happiness?  One of my favorite dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary, gives as its first definition of happiness the following: 'characterized by luck or good fortune; prosperous,' and its second as 'having or demonstrating pleasure or satisfaction; gratified.'  This is practically identical with the first two definitions of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary.    

The trouble with these definitions, of course, is that they reflect a very shallow notion of happiness, essentially identical with what I call 'Hollywood happiness.' Hollywood has sold us a bill of goods on what happiness is, pushing especially wealth, luxury, power, beauty, youth, sexual gratification, and a highly exotic notion of romantic love. At the center of it all seems to be pleasure. Our modern western world, taking its cues from Hollywood, is shamelessly hedonistic. Unfortunately, I suppose that a very high percentage of humanity believes that happiness is what Hollywood defines as happiness. It is particularly important to explode the myth that these things lead to happiness and to show that there are plenty of people with these things who are unhappy and plenty of people without them who are happy. Some recent psychological studies have provided us with a scientific basis to conclude something we suspected all along, namely that money cannot buy happiness.

human beings crave for happiness. Who of us upon being asked 'Are you happy?' would be able to give an absolute yes or no?

The Greek philosophers are pretty good on the subject. Socrates said that people miss their happiness because they do not know what it is, mistaking for good, things that are not good, things such as unlimited wealth and power. The Stoic philosophers believed that a virtuous person has all he or she needs for happiness, namely such things as wisdom, courage, justice and moderation. It’s hard to imagine more of a contrast with the values underlying Hollywood happiness. Going against the idea of fate or luck as determinative of happiness, the Stoics argued that happiness and unhappiness are not dependent on birth, upbringing, status or any of the other contingencies of life.

Whatever it is, human beings crave for happiness. Who of us upon being asked 'Are you happy?' would be able to give an absolute yes or no?  More likely, the answer would be 'Depends on what you mean by ‘happy,’ and it would probably be a mixture of 'yes and no.'  Very mystifying is the fact that some who should be happy say they are not, while those who should not be happy, say that they are. There is, in short, an awful lot of confusion about what happiness is. We need a more adequate definition of happiness.

The complexities of happiness

Dr. David Myers, a psychologist who has studied happiness, defines it as 'subjective well-being' or 'emotional well-being.' He further identifies this state as 'a pervasive sense that life is good,' 'an ongoing perception that this time of one’s life, or even life as a whole, is fulfilling, meaningful, and pleasant' (Pursuit of Happiness, 23). He also refers to 'feelings of happiness' and 'satisfaction with life.'

The traits, or distinguishing features of a happy person, are also revealing: self esteem, personal control, optimism and extraversion.  Dr. Myers also speaks of the importance of close relationships and of health. People who have these traits tend to be happier than those who lack them.

Dr. Myers is interested in the scientific study of who is happy and why−the “demography” of happiness, if you will.  The subject is not easy. Nor can measuring happiness be an easy matter. There are different kinds of happiness.  One could be happy in some ways and unhappy in other ways at the same time. One could be happy in the morning and unhappy in the afternoon. A smiling face can  camouflage a deep unhappiness; and unhappy face can conceal a deep happiness.

I am tempted to ask the reader if she or he is happy. Probably most readers would regard the question as too simple. Happy in what sense? By what definition?

How many people are really happy? One of my favorite psychology writers, Arch Hart, expresses surprise at the conclusion of one psychologist that 20% of the population is happy.  Hart believes that the proportion is much lower. Dr. Myers cites national surveys, where no less than one third of Americans describe themselves as very happy (40% in some European countries), and the majority describe themselves as 'pretty happy.'  Less than 10% report themselves as more dissatisfied with life than satisfied with life (Life is better than the alternative, anyway!). I think I side with Hart in being surprised at these statistics.

I am tempted to ask the reader if she or he is happy. Probably most readers would regard the question as too simple. Happy in what sense? By what definition? If I’d known about the question ahead of time I’d have eaten a better breakfast. The only reasonable answer would have to be framed in a complicated balance of yeses and nos. Besides, perhaps I don’t want to tell anyone I’m not happy.
'If you feel happy, you are happy−that’s all we mean by the term,' according to happiness researcher, Jonathan Freedman (cited by Myers in Pursuit of Happiness, 27). It is comforting to know that at least the therapist is not going to respond with the alarming analysis: 'But you aren’t really happy, you only think you are,' or 'You aren’t really unhappy, you only think you are.' Nevertheless does not this approach rest too exclusively on feelings? And are feelings alone a sure measure of true happiness? Do feelings not fluctuate depending on many variables, often relatively unimportant ones?

It does seem clear that attitudes are very important to the experience of happiness. But are they in themselves sufficient to produce happiness? Attitudes are after all insubstantial. They are only ways of thinking about something. If we are unhappy, can we fool ourselves into thinking we are happy? Is Norman Vincent Peale right when he says that 'You can think your way to failure and unhappiness, but you can also think your way to success and happiness'? Undoubtedly there is considerable truth here. But what if hard reality simply provides too concrete an obstacle to positive thinking? Another advocate of mind power is Robert Schuler who, in The Be-Happy Attitudes, writes: 'The good news is . . .the bad news can be turned into good news . . . when you change your attitude!' Apart from the questionable exegesis of the beautitudes (more about that in a moment), there may be more that cries out for change than merely our attitudes!  Truly bad news cannot be turned around just by thinking differently about matters, Christian Science notwithstanding.

The Bible and happiness

When all else fails, we could I suppose turn to the Bible. The shocker, of course, is that the Bible doesn’t seem very interested in happiness. English translations hardly employ the words 'happy' or 'happiness.' A perfectly good Greek word, eudaimonia, meaning 'happiness,' was available, but is not used by a single New Testament (NT) writer. Another Greek word, one that seems indispensable to the description of Hollywood happiness, is hedone, 'pleasure.' This word occurs in the NT only a few times (Luke 8:14; Titus 3:3; James 4:1, 3; 2 Peter 2:13), and always negatively. Some of these are instructive. Luke 8:14 refers to seeds that are 'choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.' Titus 3:3 refers to being foolish and 'led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.'  Happiness, in the sense that it is usually understood, apparently seems for the NT perspective to be altogether too much of a preoccupation with the self, too centrifugal a matter.

The beatitudes, from Jesus’ sermon on the mount in the Gospel of Matthew, refer to a very different kind of happiness

The Bible, indeed, has another vocabulary, a more elevated one, for the matters that interest us here, namely words such as 'blessedness' and 'joy.' Let us briefly consider these terms. While in the Old Testament (OT) sometimes blessedness is related to material matters, in the main it designates as blessed the person who knows and fears God, who considers the poor and does justice and righteousness. Blessedness is for the most part thus directed away from the self. Blessedness is rather the product of what God has done and the participation of people in what God has done.

The beatitudes, from Jesus’ sermon on the mount in the Gospel of Matthew, refer to a very different kind of happiness. With all deference to Robert Schuler, they are not primarily a matter of revising our attitudes or thinking. To speak of 'be happy attitudes' is to miss the point of the beatitudes. Nor are they concerned with such matters as self-esteem or self-fulfillment. The beatitudes rest in the first instance upon what God has done. They are assertions of objective reality that depend on Jesus’ announcement of the  dawn of the kingdom of God. They do not refer to subjective feelings, attitudes or ways of thinking. The word makarios (blessed) can indeed be translated 'happy,' as long as it is realized that it refers not to a mundane happiness, but to a deep, inner joy on the part of those who have experienced the fulfillment of the promised salvation. The recipients of the kingdom are deeply or supremely happy.

Ordinary happiness, much less Hollywood happiness, could hardly be ascribed to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, or those who are persecuted. But it is to them−those who have believed the message of Jesus−that the kingdom is given. The happiness in view is both present and future (note the present tense in 'theirs is the kingdom of heaven,' vv 3 and 10). At the end of the beatitudes the exhortation to 'rejoice and be glad' (v 12) is in view of the reward that, according to the Bible, awaits the disciples in heaven.

The foundations of joy

Makarios occurs no less than 50 times in the NT; in the vast majority of these occurrences the word has this connotation of deep gladness in the fact of fulfillment of salvation. Hauck puts is nicely when he concludes that the word 'refers overwhelmingly to the distinctive religious joy which accrues to man from his share in the salvation of the kingdom of God' (TDNT, 4:367). Thus Jesus says to his disciples, 'happy are the eyes that see what you see' (Matthew 13:16: Luke 10:23).

A similar conclusion may be drawn from the word for 'joy' (chara), which occurs 59 times in the NT (the cognate verb chairo occurs 74 times). That is, the joy in view has a special character determined by the reality of future salvation −' the future experienced as joy in the present,' as Conzelmann describes it (TDNT 9:369). Joy is the result of what God is doing. At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, in which the theme of joy is prominent, we read 'you will have joy and gladness at his birth' (1:14) and 'I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people' (Luke 2:10). At the end of the same Gospel we read 'they returned to Jerusalem with great joy' (Luke 24:52).

There is thus an amazing amount of joy and exultation in the NT. It is, however, as we have said, a special kind of happiness

Paul actually equates the experience of the kingdom of God with 'righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Romans 14:17). Some lines later Paul prays 'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing' (Romans 15:13).  In Galatians 5:22 joy is the second element, after love, listed as the fruit of the Spirit. 1 Peter 1:8 refers to those who believe in Jesus Christ and 'rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.'

There is thus an amazing amount of joy and exultation in the NT. It is, however, as we have said, a special kind of happiness. It is oriented not inward, toward the subject experiencing happiness, but outward to the object that is the source of the happiness. It has therefore a decisively objective basis. In short, the rich NT vocabulary of words related to the idea of happiness is consistently determined by the reality of what God has done in Christ.

Herein lies perhaps the main difference between happiness in the NT and happiness in recent psychological research. The latter focuses on the subjective realm−that is, happiness as mainly the result of feelings, attitudes and thinking rather than objective realities. But in the salvation announced in the NT, God has changed things objectively, and in a way that has fundamentally and forever altered the structure of reality as we have known and experienced it.

The NT of course argues against the lures of the world which cannot bring happiness. Indeed, there is much more in the NT that can help us in our discussion. A couple of examples must suffice. Jesus warns against wealth: 'Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions' (Luke 12:15). In 1 John we find a critique of the world’s values: 'Do not love the world or the things in the world . . . For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world,' and the world and its lust are passing away (1 John 2:15-16). It would be hard to imagine anything more contrary to Hollywood happiness.

In the NT happiness cannot be distinguished from salvation

In the NT happiness cannot be distinguished from salvation. It is worth emphasizing that salvation in the NT is a holistic concept. It really is not very different from Dr. Myer’s definition of happiness as well-being, if we but remove the limiting words 'subjective' or 'emotional.' NT salvation is essentially the equivalent of the Hebrew notion of shalom: ultimate well-being in every regard.

Now the truly remarkable assertion of the NT is that salvation has somehow already come in, and through the work of Jesus Christ. Eschatology in fulfillment of the promises has begun, lacking only its consummation. The future has entered the present.  It is this that occasions all the joy in the NT. Christianity is meant to be essentially a great celebration. And it celebrates not what God will do, but what he has done already. Christians meet on Sundays to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus; to celebrate his atoning death in the Eucharist.

Jesus and his disciples were faulted for not fasting. But how could there be fasting when the bridegroom was present and the wedding at hand, as Jesus described his presence? Jesus, indeed, was apparently known for his enjoyment of parties – a glutton and drunkard compared to John the Baptist! What a pity that when some people think of Christianity they think of the opposite of enjoyment, happiness, and joy. I still remember the excellent little book by Karl Olsson, entitled Come to the Party (1972), where he addressed the subject. Olsson rightly portrayed Christianity as essentially an ongoing party, because Christians had so much to celebrate. The kingdom has come. The new age has dawned. Salvation has become a reality.

The problem of the notion of happiness

As we all know, there is nevertheless one slight – or not so slight – problem.  And that is that the old age has not yet passed away. Sin and the consequences of sin have not been removed from the earth. We do not yet experience the perfection of the future kingdom. We are, as the late Oscar Cullmann, as well as George Ladd, taught so well, currently caught in an overlap of the ages, the new age having come, but without bringing the end of the old age. Christians believe they have begun to experience the eschatological era, preeminently through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But they know that in this interim period between the first and second comings of Christ, they have not yet arrived at the goal.

How does this affect our discussion of the joy that is meant to be the believer’s experience?  Well, the NT will not give up the appropriateness of deep joy for the present time frame. As the book of Acts shows, the early church was characterized by a wonderful joy – note well, this in a situation of persecution, hardship, suffering, and death. I am tempted to cite the list of hardships faced by Paul in his missionary work (e.g. 1 Cor 4:11-13; 2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

Can a person participate in this salvation, and still not be happy? The answer must be yes

The paradoxical elements toward the end of the latter passage are striking. I mention only the following: we are 'as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.'  The words 'as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing' indicate sharply the ambiguity and complexity caused by this strange interim between the comings of Christ. There can be no side-stepping of the fact that all around us are clear indications we are far from the promised ideal future. Exactly for this reason the hope of transformation that we confidently expect will retain its high significance to the question of final happiness, as it does to the problem of evil.

The experience of salvation with the deep joy that necessarily comes with it does not and cannot, at least in the present time frame, bring about an unalloyed happiness. Can a person participate in this salvation, and still not be happy? The answer must be yes.

Consider some of the leading characters of the biblical narrative. Were Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Job, Jesus, or Paul, happy persons? They all had their frustrations and disappointments, and not minor ones either. There were hard times, when 'happy' would hardly have been the right word to use in describing them. But I suppose that insofar as they were involved in God’s redemptive purposes they were filled with a deep joy, a joy that circumstances could not take away.


Happiness, as we have seen, is not an easy subject. It is very difficult to define and very difficult to measure.  Happiness means different things to different people. Dr. Myers and other happiness researchers in the field of psychology tend to think of happiness in terms of a subjective sense of well-being, a satisfaction with life, and feelings of happiness. Dr. Myers has nicely shown that happiness in this sense is not really dependent upon wealth and youth−the sort of things that are so commonly thought to be the key to happiness. It does seem clear, as he concludes, that 'happiness depends less on our objective circumstances than on how we respond to them' (The Pursuit of Happiness, 27). On this matter his conclusions square well with the teaching of the NT. Hollywood happiness clearly neither satisfies nor endures.

There is clearly a positive link between faith and well-being. I would argue that there can be no happiness worth calling happiness in the end that lacks a transcendent dimension that can give meaning to the present and security in the future beyond death. Participation in salvation is bound to have an effect on how we assess the small ups and downs in life.

happiness occurs as a by-product of the satisfaction of desires for things other than happiness itself, with the result that those who seek it directly cannot find it

In his book The Pursuit of Happiness, Dr. Myers humbly admits that he does not 'possess the final answers to the mysteries of well-being' (p. 22). There are mysteries here, to be sure. Happiness is hardly as predictable as we would like it to be.

I agree with the view of Joseph Butler, an Anglican bishop of the 18th century, who concluded that happiness occurs as a by-product of the satisfaction of desires for things other than happiness itself, with the result that those who seek it directly cannot find it. These are wise words that point to a remarkable paradox: To forget oneself, indeed to turn away from oneself, is to begin to be happy. Happiness is elusive. It is like chasing after the wind. The more you focus on it the less likely you are to discover it.  

In Matthew 22:36 Jesus was approached by an expert in the law who asked the question 'Which is the great commandment in the law?' If we may rely on the statement of Psalm 119:2, “Happy are those who keep his decrees,” it is possible to interpret this man’s question as amounting to 'What must I do to be happy?' Jesus answered the question in the now famous words: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.' Here is a turning away from preoccupation with self towards God and others. To participate in the salvation that God has wrought for us, and to occupy ourselves with loving God and loving others−perhaps here lies the real secret of happiness.   

Professor Hagner is a renowned New Testament Scholar who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in the United States. Among his many writings, is the Word Biblical Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (in two volumes)