DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY!
To find human happiness we have to give our lives away
Suddenly there is a ‘happiness agenda’ in Britain. This is the idea that human happiness is so important that it must in some way be a goal of public policy. For too long our collective thinking has been dominated by economists who claim they can only study observable human behaviour, and that attitudes of the heart are beyond empirical reach. In fact there is an emerging science of happiness, and people are quite capable of giving accurate accounts of how happy they are. According to Richard Layard, a leading ‘happiness’ economist, there are seven large components of human happiness: family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and personal values.
For people living in poverty, just small increases in wealth can make a huge impact on their well-being, but as you go further up the scale, the increase in human happiness generated by extra income begins to tail off until it makes no difference at all. Pursuing economic growth at all costs – the basic default setting of British politics – is in the end self-defeating, even before we get to the impact it is having on the environment for future generations. People are happier if they are able to appreciate what they have, and if they do not always compare themselves with others. Indeed, two of the most robust findings of the budding happiness research are that people who believe in God are happier than those who don’t, and that people who care about other people are happier than those who are more preoccupied with themselves.
As a Christian you might smile at the way the ‘bleeding obvious’ is packaged as a revelation of social science, but it provides fruitful ground for sharing with people the underlying purpose of life: that we are called to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The pursuit of happiness, however, is understood in such individualistic ways today that this engagement has to include a robust commitment to the idea of dying to self if we are not simply to baptise a secular agenda. Human happiness is found by walking through the cross, not around it, and results in the taking the boldest of life’s risks: to give our lives away. This is because, having embraced the cross, we know our lives are no longer ours to withhold.
One outcome of the happiness agenda which is surely to be welcomed is its stress on the importance of mental health. Mental illness is one of the hardest things to cope with in life, and yet it remains the Cinderella service in public health. Around sixteen per cent of people experience mental health problems at some point, and yet only two per cent of N.H.S. resources are devoted to them. Developing understandings of human happiness have exposed this scandal. I sometimes wonder if churches, in addressing the pastoral needs of congregations, are culpable of the same misallocation of resources.
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