What Christianity Can Teach About Happiness

erNot long ago, a friend sent me a very thought-provoking article about raising kids. Entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” it dealt with “why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.” Many modern parents are attempting to create perfect childhoods for their offspring, and in so doing are creating a generation of narcissists who are suffering higher and higher rates of depression and anxiety. Therapist Lori Gottlieb’s review of both empirical and anecdotal evidence was compelling and she struggled to find an answer to the question posed in the cartoon, at left, that accompanied the piece. Why do so many kids struggle with feelings of depression and of being lost, when they are arguably living in the best of times?

The article was quite thought-provoking and included a number of good suggestions, counseling readers to remember that happiness is not something that we can seek directly. Nor is it something that we can talk into our children. In fact, trying to convince kids that everything they do is “great,” and provide excuses every time they fall short, will set them up for a decidedly unhappy adulthood. In short, this quest for perfection in our kids, and for our kids, is doing them a great disservice.

While I applaud Gottlieb’s contribution, I don’t think her analysis goes deep enough. True, “our children are not our masterpieces,” as she notes. But can she answer why this is so? Other than by seeing the consequences of this form of parenting, is there a way we can know that it is doomed to failure?

This is where Christianity, with its understanding of why things work the way they do, can provide answers that a secular view cannot. If there is no God, then evolution would explain how we ended up in this situation. Our social views are evolving, and presently we are in a time in which being “non-judgmental” and “me-centered” is highly valued. Perhaps some people suffer in this environment, and if enough do, then it will presumably change as time moves on. But of course, with no God to provide meaning, this situation we find ourselves in is neither right nor wrong; it just is. Attaching a value judgment to it makes no more sense than criticizing a wolf for running in packs or praising a lion for stalking its prey.

From a Christian perspective, by contrast, we know the source of this unrelenting desire for perfection. Seeking relationship with us, God has left within us a desire to search for Him, the ultimate fountain of perfection. This desire works in conjunction with our conscience, which provides us knowledge – what we experience as a feeling of guilt – when we do wrong. But we have perverted this desire for Him into the desire for perfection in the here and now, both in our own lives and in the lives and actions of those around us, those we influence like our children. Though we would acknowledge that perfection is not really achievable now, we don’t actually internalize that knowledge, and so we persist in wanting what we can never have. This leads us often to poor choices. Take for example the rising divorce rate; while divorce is sometimes necessary, more often it is a desire to “start over” because we can’t seem to make the marriage, and our partner, perfect. Letting God be perfect is liberating, then, because the pressure to achieve perfection here is seen for what it is – a misplaced effort at best, a violation of the First Commandment at worst.

Christians also know that insisting on achieving perfection now will necessarily lead to unhappiness – the recognition of the gap between what I expect and I what I actually experience. God is the only perfect being, and seeking perfection apart from Him is an effort doomed to failure. Happiness is a corollary of right living, and right living means living in a manner consistent with God’s will. God does not will us to be self-centered; quite the contrary. His will is that we place him, properly, at the center of everything. Consequently, our own happiness should never be a goal in and of itself. The article makes this point quite well.

But why should that be so? If nature were all there is, then pursuing the object of my desires would make sense. I do that with things like food and shelter and other basic necessities. But when it comes to happiness, the more I seek it, the less happy I become. Again, the Christian worldview can make sense of this. We weren’t meant to be “happy” here, at least not in the sense that people have today. This is a waypoint on a journey, and the issue is not whether I have achieved bliss here, but whether I have developed in the appropriate way. Consider, by analogy, the life of the fetus. Is its goal or function to be happy for nine months? If the mother takes care of herself during the pregnancy, the fetus may experience no pain, but the purpose of the in utero time was not to maximize the fetus’ happiness or self fulfillment, but to prepare her for this life. Similarly, while it is better to be happy than to be sad or troubled, it is a mistake to measure the value of our lives by our feelings. There may be times when happiness eludes us, but when we view this as part of the way things were meant to be, it actually helps, ironically, to lessen the unhappiness.

The secularist will probably never understand this. Thinking that science can answer all his questions, he neglects to try to make sense of it all in a broader and more comprehensive way. So intent on studying the leaf in front him, he misses the forest for the trees. And often times, it is his children who will also suffer.

Posted by Al Serrato

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