Sunday 3 February 2008

The pursuit of happiness

We’ve decided to base our next issue of Case magazine on the theme "happiness". Why? Well first of all because it seems everyone wants to be happy, and there is a heightened interest right now in the secret (no pun intended) of happiness. Obviously it’s not a new topic; there have always been opinions on how you gain happiness (although Kel Richards tells us in his contribution that the word isn’t as old as you might think). But for the last 12 months interest in exploring how we become happy has been growing in popularity. The books and the video of The Secret have, much to my surprise, gained more attention than they deserve. There has also been strong media interest in the topic (see for example the major feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald of August 11th 2007 by Peter Hartcher or D.T. Max's similar effort in the New York Times on 7th January 2007). There are now numerous self-help books that seek to show people how they can learn to be happy. In fact, as Hartcher reports, many universities (mainly in the USA) now offer subjects in positive psychology. This is a relatively new branch of psychology that considers topics such as wellbeing and the “scientific pursuit of happiness”. Positive psychology focuses on emotions like happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure in the same way that clinical psychology has focused on more negative human experiences such as anger, depression and loneliness. A key driver of this academic movement has been Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania whose book Authentic Happiness (2002) has given direction to the field of positive psychology.

Academic conferences on positive psychology now draw large audiences in the USA, Britain and even Australia. In June 2007 a major conference focusing on the pursuit of happiness was held in Sydney titled “Happiness & its causes”. This international conference drew a large audience made up academics, psychiatrists, therapists, psychologists, educators, leading policy makers (e.g. Pru Goward, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner), doctors, a few clergy (e.g. Father Chris Riley), politicians (e.g. Linda Burney and Malcolm Turnbull) and journalists across various interest areas, including Sydney Morning Herald Economics Editor Ross Gittins and ABC’s Geraldine Doogue. The Dalai Lama was also a special guest speaker. High profile author Stephanie Dowrick was also there as both an “Interfaith Minister” and author of a number of bestsellers, including “Forgiveness and other acts of love” and “Choosing happiness: Life and soul essentials” (I will review the latter in the next edition of Case).

The preoccupation with studying, talking about and teaching happiness has moved beyond psychologists to teachers, health professionals, life coaches, social policy makers and even economists. The latter have begun to research the relationship between perceptions of happiness and economics.

Now there seems something strange about this sudden interest in happiness. We could explore why this might be occurring at this time. Some speculated about the relationship between the phenomenon and the economy in the run up to the last Australian election. Others have looked for a relationship between the pressures of life and the seeming time poor nature of people in developed countries like Australia.

From a biblical perspective there is something upside down about focussing on happiness, with its focus typically on external circumstances, success, pleasure, wellbeing and so on. The Bible says little about seeking happiness but says much more about eternal blessings. In Jesus’ first major teaching event (Matthew 5:3-12) he makes it clear that those who mourn, the persecuted, the hungry and so on can have more than happiness; we can be blessed with membership of the Kingdom of God. Both the Old and New Testaments suggests that we are first to seek the Kingdom of God.

Rather than focusing on external circumstances, pleasure, wellbeing, positive thinking etc, the real secret (yes pun intended) to life, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). If we are right with God our needs for food, shelter, physical wellbeing, clothing etc will be taken care of and will seem of less significance. Jesus did not promise that life will be happy if we follow him. He urged his disciples to have right priorities in life; the first priority being to follow him.

There are many things in this world that can bring us temporary happiness – money, good health, success, people who love you and so on. But the things of this world cannot ensure ongoing happiness.

Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?

There are bigger stakes than temporal happiness; there is eternal membership of God’s family through Christ, which leaves the search for happiness in this life in its wake. We are to seek an “everlasting kingdom” (Psalm 145: 13), as well as seeking to be right with God by accepting the free gift of grace that Jesus death offers us.

In issue 14 of the Case magazine we will have pieces on Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and happiness (Mike Wilson), the Pursuit of happiness through economic growth (Ben Cooper), a word study on happiness by Kel Richards and reviews of two influential books on happiness y Roberta Kwan and me. There will be other contributions as well. Subscribers should have the magazine in their mailboxes by early March. If you’re not a subscriber you can buy single issues for $10 AUS or receive quarterly editions of Case for just $55 AUS per year. You can sample some of the content of past issues on the CASE website.


David McKay said...

Hi Trevor
Is it really more expensive to subscribe to CASE than to buy issues individually?
[Ten dollars for a single copy, or $55 for 4 copies]

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi David, Good pick-up! I was referring to back issues that we sell for $10 each. The current issue is $15. Sorry about this confusion. Trevor