The Pursuit of Something Greater Than Happiness

June 3, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments


I’ve heard it more than once from someone who feels weighted down by life’s doldrums: “I just want to be happy.”  Happiness, it seems, is many people’s decisive goal and good.  And who can blame them?  Our nation has as its sacrosanct trinity life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We hold it as self-evident that we should be able to do whatever makes us happy.

But this begs the question:  What does make us happy?

If you believe behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, being a single woman without children is a highway to happiness that too few have travelled.  In an article for The Guardian, Sian Cain reports:

We may have suspected it already, but now the science backs it up: unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population.  And they are more likely to live longer than their married and child-rearing peers, according to a leading expert in happiness …

Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, said the latest evidence showed that the traditional markers used to measure success did not correlate with happiness – particularly marriage and raising children.

The article goes on to explain that men benefit from marriage more than women, mainly because men take fewer risks, earn more money, and live longer when married.  Conversely, women who are never married, according to Professor Dolan’s research, are healthier and live longer than women who are married.

On their face, Professor Dolan’s conclusions sound open and shut.  But the waters become muddied as the article continues:

The study found that levels of happiness reported by those who were married was higher than the unmarried, but only when their spouse was in the room.  Unmarried individuals reported lower levels of misery than married individuals who were asked when their spouse was not present.

Other studies have measured some financial and health benefits in being married for both men and women on average, which Dolan said could be attributed to higher incomes and emotional support, allowing married people to take risks and seek medical help.

Wait.  What?  So it’s not that unmarried women are happier than married women per se, it’s that they’re less miserable?  Less misery does not equate to being happy any more than having fewer cancer cells after chemotherapy equates to being healthy.  Moreover, other studies show, as this article admits, that marriage does bring certain benefits, including better health.  So, which is it?  Are unmarried women healthier or sicklier?  Are they better off or worse off?  The evidence, at best, seems inconclusive, which means that one can’t help but wonder whether Professor Dolan is following the evidence or manipulating it as he formulates his conclusions.

Beyond the evidentiary and interpretive questions surrounding Professor Dolan’s study, there is an even larger philosophical question we must consider:  Should happiness really be our goal?  I’m not arguing that happiness is not good; I’m just not sure it’s ultimate.  Many of history’s most compelling figures – from Socrates to Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Tubman to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Winston Churchill to Jesus Christ – sacrificed personal happiness for lasting impact.  Dionysus, it turns out, may be a great addition to life, but if you make him the goal of life, you might just forfeit the very happiness he purports to promise.

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, personifies Eros, which is romantic and sensual love, as saying, “Better to be miserable with her than happy without her.  Let our hearts break provided they break together.”  Sometimes, misery that loves its company is better than happiness that is shallowly self-indulgent.  And this is true not just of erotic love, but of every kind of love.  Just ask the parent who stands by a wayward and wily child or the child who cares for an aging and ailing parent.  They will testify to the righteousness of and strange fulfillment that comes from a willingness to endure misery for the sake of love.

The biblical word for love that endures misery is “longsuffering.”  God is willing, the Bible says, to suffer long with His rebellious people because He loves them.  And in Jesus, He is willing even to suffer long for His rebellious people because He loves them.

Hopefully, your love is not miserable.  In fact, if it is, I would encourage you to seek help.  Just because love that is willing to endure misery can be good doesn’t mean that it is.  Have someone speak into your life who can tell you candidly whether the misery you’re experiencing is nobly selfless or just plain stupid.  With this being said, I am thankful that I have a Savior who was willing to be miserable on a cross for me.  That, oddly enough, brings me great happiness – and thankfulness.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. WillNeverBeShaken  |  June 4, 2019 at 9:28 am

    Great article. It certainly stands to reason that “pursuit of happiness” needn’t necessarily be our driving force, especially for Christians, for myriad theological and philosophical reasons. But it sounds like you’re implying that preferring to remain unmarried is “shallowly self-indulgent.” While I’m sure that’s not what you meant, it suggests a tangential implicit argument.

    Society’s definition or implications of singleness and happiness herein discussed aside, I don’t think people realize the sacrifice single people make in serving the Lord unmarried, especially in the near-constant subtle barrage from society (AND the church, incidentally, if one listens close enough) that marriage, as the ultimate picture of Christ’s relationship to the church, is somehow also the only picture of suffering for the sake of love. We are all a part of the body of Christ, and we all serve and are fulfilled in different ways, and some people best accomplish this when unmarried. I strongly believe this is a statement that should be acknowledged (ESPECIALLY more in the church) in the face of everyone else implying that marriage is the ultimate path to fulfillment in Christ or picture of sacrificial love (or to happiness, as society as historically professed).

    Disparaging marriage and holding up singleness as the holy grail isn’t right–but being called to singleness and finding true peace and joy right where God put you, either today or for your entire life, isn’t wrong. We’re called to different walks of life and we can all be equally happy (or unhappy) and fulfilled in the love of Christ. Yes, please, defend marriage. But defend singleness, too.

    Reply
    • 2. Pastor Zach  |  June 4, 2019 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts! I completely agree. Marriage and singleness are both gifts from God and are to be esteemed and celebrated. I also agree that the Church has not always done the best job at celebrating singleness as a blessed vocation and has instead, at least implicitly, viewed it as a suspicious situation. It is almost as if many in evangelical circles, in an effort to guard against the medieval exaltation of celibacy as some especially spiritual state, have flipped the old monastic script and turned marriage into a holier estate than celibacy. Both scripts are erroneous. I in no way meant to imply that singleness is somehow a lesser state than marriage. This is actually part of the reason I sought to speak not just of Eros, which is often associated with marriage, but of love in general. Whether single or married, we are called to love others, sometimes at the expense of our own personal happiness. As I’ve been thinking about this further, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps Mr. Dolan could benefit from reading some Viktor Frankl who, in order to survive in a concentration camp, could not make happiness his chief aim. He had to aim for meaning. Thanks again for your thoughts and call to clarity!

      Reply
      • 3. jon traut  |  June 4, 2019 at 6:06 pm

        Your added depth to the discussion is a blessing

        jon

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