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The Pursuit of (Which) Happiness?

One reason we struggle to find happiness is that we aren’t sure what it is.

Imagine two individuals on a summer’s evening. The first is sitting in the garden, trying to finish a crossword before the sun sets, deep in thought with the grandchildren playing on the patio behind her. The second has just jumped out of a plane and is plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, marveling at the views beneath him and shrieking with delight. Which person seems happier to you?

It depends on what you think happiness is. If you associate it with words like fun, laughter, euphoria, revelry, exuberance, exhilaration, and thrill, then the skydiver seems happier. On the other hand, if you think of happiness as involving contentment, serenity, satisfaction, peace, harmony, rest, and bliss, you’ll be drawn to the crossword-loving grandmother.

The point isn’t that crosswords make you happier than skydives, or vice versa. The point is we use the word happiness in a wide variety of ways, some strikingly different from (and even irreconcilable with) one another. For example, a life spent chasing euphoria and excitement will look different from a life spent pursuing flourishing and contentment. Put like that, it’s the difference between a 1980s Tom Cruise movie (Top Gun) and a 1990s Tom Hanks movie (Forrest Gump).

We use the word happiness in a wide variety of ways, some strikingly different from (and even irreconcilable with) one another.

The question of which kind of happiness we’re looking for comes to us all the time: in the daily trade-offs between time and money; in the soul-searching of a bored married man whose younger coworker is showing an interest in him; in the ordinary budgeting issues of spending and saving, buying now and paying later; in the choice between taking a more stimulating job or having more time with the children; in the amount of time we spend on a screen. We all have equivalents on a daily basis, however trivial they may seem: Should I stay or should I go? Is this a time to build or a time to tear down?

Happiness comes in many flavors. The Hebrew Bible, for example, has around 20 different happiness words. The Greek New Testament has 15 or so. English, a rich language, has around 50. Admittedly, many of them are so similar as to be almost indistinguishable. (Can you describe the difference between cheer and gladness? Me neither.) But they also all have striking nuances. We know there’s a marked difference between bliss and luck, for instance, or between merriment and flourishing, even if we find it hard to describe.

So it may be helpful to group these words together, to try to identify the main “flavors” or “shades” of happiness people talk about. (For obvious reasons, we’ll be doing this in English, but all the languages I know of have equivalents of each of them.) Identifying what we mean when we talk about happiness can be helpful, both in identifying what we are (and aren’t) called to pursue and in thinking about the practices, beliefs, and experiences that make that pursuit easier.

Seven Flavors of Happiness

1. Happiness Experienced

This is often depicted with words such as joy, delight, pleasure, gladness, or enjoyment. This is probably the basic sense of the word for most people reading this essay.

Admittedly, many Christians will insist joy (deep, serious, lasting) should be sharply distinguished from happiness (light, trivial, fleeting), but this is a relatively recent—and in my view unhelpful—distinction. It doesn’t survive contact with Scripture, or indeed with other European languages: the English say “happy birthday” while the French say “joyeux anniversaire,” the Spanish say “feliz cumpleaños,” and the Greeks use “charoúmena genéthlia” (chara is the word for joy in the Greek New Testament).

Happiness, joy, and delight can be used interchangeably; to be happy is to rejoice, and in the psalmist’s language, to have “fullness of joy” is to experience “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). So there’s no need to believe happiness is flippant or real “joy” is so deep as to be invisible. As a friend of mine once put it, we want a joy that reaches the face.

2. Happiness Expressed

The second flavor is what happens when the first flavor is made manifest. When people put their joy, delight, pleasure, and felicity on display, we use more expressive language, like merriment, cheer, gaiety, mirth, exultation, celebration, jubilation, revelry, rejoicing, fun, or hilarity.

In that sense, the difference between the first and second flavors is between feeling an emotion and showing it: the difference between sadness and lament, appreciation and praise. The first is an experience, while the second is its audible, visible, and tangible expression. The second often follows naturally from the first, but not always. Sometimes we need encouragement to act on our emotions, which is why the Hebrew Scriptures so regularly urge people to celebrate, make merry, be jubilant, exult, and make a joyful noise (Pss. 64:10; 68:4; 95:1; 96:12; 98:4; 100:2; 149:5; Ecc. 9:7). Let me hear joy and gladness! Turn your fasts into feasts! God rest ye merry, ladies and gentlemen!

3. Happiness as Ecstasy

We’ve touched on the third flavor already—the intense, heady, overwhelming but short-term flood of endorphins that comes in response to physical stimuli and that we might describe using words like excitement, thrill, rush, high, euphoria, ecstasy, and exhilaration. Unlike the first two flavors, which are unequivocally positive, this one is morally ambiguous.

Euphoria might result from good things (physical exercise, triumphant achievements, sex within marriage) that produce good results (fitness, diligence, intimacy). It might result from bad things (substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, illegal drugs) with damaging consequences (addiction, broken relationships, loss of control, depression, financial ruin). Or it might result from things neither morally good nor morally bad (music festivals, roller coasters, bungee jumping) that can be received as gifts without becoming gods.

4. Happiness as Fortune

The best way to introduce the fourth and fifth flavors is through a pair of brothers we meet in Genesis. Their names, Gad and Asher, reflect two further understandings of happiness, which were probably the two dominant ones in the years before Christ:

When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “What good fortune!” So she named him Gad. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher. (Gen. 30:9–13, NIV)

The fourth flavor, embodied by Gad, means fortune, luck, or chance. A modern equivalent would be the name of the former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, or names like Felix and Felicity, which mean either happy or fortunate in Latin. Obviously, in the modern West, we tend to differentiate between being happy and being lucky. But for many people in history, especially in the ancient pagan world, these two experiences would be indistinguishable.

This perspective on happiness stands behind various biblical names—Gad (Hebrew), Felix (Latin), Tychicus and Eutychus (Greek)—and indeed behind the English word happiness itself. Hap originally meant luck, which is why hapless means unfortunate, perhaps means with luck, and happenstance means that which “happens” to have occurred.

5. Happiness as Flourishing

Asher, by contrast, means happy in the sense of flourishing, thriving, or well-being. Think of the first line in the Psalter: “Blessed [Asher] is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1). And what does being asher look like? “Like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3).

This isn’t a description of an emotional state or a mood. It’s a holistic description of flourishing in life as a whole: thriving, prospering, experiencing wellness and vitality, living life as it’s meant to be lived. Of the seven flavors, this is the closest to Aristotle’s famous discussion of eudaimonia in the Nicomachean Ethics.

6. Happiness as Contentment

The sixth flavor of happiness is the sense of contentment, satisfaction, serenity, bliss, peace, and rest you experience when you have all you need. Your desires have been met. You aren’t craving or seeking what you don’t have but resting calmly in what you do have.

Again, the Psalter provides us with a beautiful biblical picture: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:1–2). When a little child is breastfeeding, he spends much of his time fussing, crying, and rooting, trying to find enough food. But when he is weaned and moves on to eating solids, his need for constant feeding reduces. He can sit quietly and contentedly in his mother’s arms.

That, David says, is what it feels like when you stop fussing about things above your pay grade and simply rest in the arms of God. The apostle Paul’s experience was similar: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12, NIV).

7. Happiness as Fullness

We can experience happiness as fullness, richness, wholeness, meaningfulness, fulfillment, and oneness. This is the hardest one to describe because in this life it’s something we glimpse rather than grasp—although those glimpses are often among the most meaningful encounters of our lives.

You may have experienced flashes of transcendence, situations where you feel you’re touching something higher or deeper than yourself, and where you forget yourself for a short while and are caught up in something beyond. The philosopher Charles Taylor describes it as a place where “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be,” whether characterized by “integrity or generosity or abandonment or self-forgetfulness.”

It’s best explained using liquid metaphors: an experience of overflowing, bursting, gushing, whereby we’re so full of something (or Someone) else that there’s no space left for our smallness and selfishness. Perhaps this is what the apostle had in mind when he asked that his friends might be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19, NIV).

Not All Happiness Is Created Equal

The seven flavors of happiness—let’s call them delight, merriment, ecstasy, luck, flourishing, contentment, and fullness—are obviously connected. There’s no point in overdrawing the distinctions between them, since many overlap and come to us simultaneously. But understanding what we mean by happiness will ultimately help us become better seekers of it.

When we make a decision, we implicitly ask which will make us happier: Self-expression or submission? Unconstrained individuality or thick community? More holidays or more children? The esteem of many strangers or the esteem of few friends? Short-term experiences or long-term relationships? Distraction or transcendence? (Biblical examples abound. A bowl of stew or a birthright? Independence or rescue? The knowledge of good and evil, or life?) The answer is that both may well make you happy, but they’ll do so in different ways, and over time you’ll always value the latter more than the former.

Not only that, but there’s a fascinating generational dimension to all this, as the psychologist Jean Twenge has recently shown. As teenagers, the individualistic and freedom-loving millennials (born 1980–94) were happier than their equivalents in Generation X (1965–79), who were more committed to family, religion, and community at the same age. Young American millennials had more disposable income, opportunity to travel, and freedom to pursue experiences than any generation before them, and they were pleased about it. But as they moved into adulthood, millennials became less happy than their forebears, as the benefits of individualism and freedom began to be eclipsed by its downsides, particularly isolation, loss of community, loneliness, and (often) depression.

The benefits of individualism and freedom began to be eclipsed by its downsides, particularly isolation, loss of community, loneliness, and (often) depression.

One fascinating implication of this research is that not all happinesses are created equal. In the long run, we value flavors five and six more than flavors three and four, and arguably—although I don’t have time to make the case now—flavor seven most of all. And that’s worth knowing in a world where we continually have to choose between them.

Before you search for happiness—let alone codify the quest for it as an inalienable right—it’s a good idea to work out what kind of happiness is worth pursuing.

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