Christianity and the Pursuit of Happiness

In Pharrell Williams’ Oscar-nominated song, “Happy,” he sings in the chorus:

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do[1]

“Happiness is the truth.” What an interesting line.

In Beyoncé’s video for her song, “Pretty Hurts,”[2] off of her latest album, she reenacts her days doing beauty pageants. During the question and answer part of the pageant, she is asked by the host, “What is your aspi­ration in life?” She pauses for a moment before saying, in a montage of the difficulties being a beauty pageant contestant, “Oh, my aspiration in life? Wow, wow, that’s a great question… I wasn’t expecting that question. What is my aspiration in life? Um, well, my aspiration in life would be to be happy.”

In Kid Cudi’s song, “Pursuit of Happiness,”[3] featuring MGMT and Ratatat, he sings:

I’m on the pursuit of happiness
And I know that everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold
Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it
I’ll be good.

Some Christians would probably like to think that this theme of happiness, of happiness being an “aspira­tion,” “the truth,” or something to pursue is found only in secular pop music. However, plenty of contemporary Christian songs focus on happiness as well. The Da­vid Crowder Band has a song called, “Oh Happiness,”[4] where the repeated line is, “Oh happiness, there’s grace enough for us and the whole human race.” Matt Red­man has a song called, “The Happy Song,”[5] which goes:

For now I know that God is for me not against me
Everybody’s singing now, ‘cause we’re so happy
Everybody’s dancing now, ‘cause we’re so happy
If only I could see your face
See you smiling over us
And unseen angels celebrate
The joy is in this place

One could argue that contemporary Christian songs focus on happiness or some sense of fulfillment just as much as secular pop songs. However, the focus is God bringing a sense of happiness or fulfillment. The source in secular pop songs often remains uncertain.

This rudimentary analysis of two genres of music, though, is not meant to show people that believing in God is the way to happi­ness, that God’s grace will have you perpetually smiling. Rather, I would like to complicate both of these mentalities. I would like to complicate the notion that we, as humans, should ever be pursuing something like happiness or contentment, whether it be through God or some other means.

As someone who identifies as Christian, I struggle with finding happiness or contentment, just as much as the next person. My faith in God does not bring me perpetual happiness. God’s grace, as mentioned in the David Crowder band’s song, does bring a certain degree of comfort. But happiness? Not so much. I think all of us, as humans, struggle to find happiness. Things hap­pen in our lives. We’re disappointed by those around us. Loved ones die. We get rejected from internships, jobs, and graduate schools. We don’t do as well as we’d like to on tests and papers. Our families fight and break apart. We get broken up with. We have our identities rejected and marginalized. We stub our toes.

Happiness is a feeling. It’s inherently ephemeral. We feel it for brief moments of time. That moment at the end of a long finals period. When we find out we got a job or an internship we really wanted, or when we found out we got into Swarthmore. That moment when our screw date isn’t that awkward of a person and actually ends up be­ing kind of fun to talk to. When our favorite song comes on at Paces and people are actually dancing. When it’s Indian bar, or whatever-our-favorite-bar is at Sharples. When we get a care package in the mail or receive words of affirmation from a professor. Happiness does come. It just comes in brief moments and is usually replaced at some point by another feeling, whether it be disappoint­ment, sadness, grief, or something completely different.

To be perpetually happy is to ignore or somehow es­cape from the harder struggles in life that happen to us, some more than others. I struggle to aspire to happiness, because, to me at least, it seems impossible, through God or any other means. Life is full of shortcomings. Happi­ness is a feeling, like any other. However, I doubly strug­gle to pursue happiness or see it as some kind of truth, because to pursue happiness would not just be finding some way to ignore my own struggles and disappoint­ments, but also the struggles and disappointments of others. To put it bluntly, to pursue happiness inherently involves some form of ignorance about the struggles and oppression of other people, and that, to me, is inherently wrong on a human moral level, but even more explicitly, on a Christian level. I do not think one can al­ways be happy knowing about the pain of marginalized friends or that there are 27 million people still work­ing in slavery today or that that man you just passed on the street in Philadelphia doesn’t have food or a place to sleep. Happiness is elusive knowing that queer peo­ple face a life of imprisonment in Uganda, that around 350,000 queer youth are homeless in the United States, and that thirty-three people in North Korea were shot for being Christians. One cannot be consistently happy knowing the disproportionate rate of black male impris­onment or the high level of poverty, and poor levels of educational resources in urban areas. In other words, one cannot be perpetually happy knowing about a lot that is happening in this world. To be endlessly happy would require ignoring a lot of what is going on and affecting those around us.

Moreover, Jesus explicitly calls us as humans to not ig­nore the suffering of those around us. In Matthew 25:31-46, the Parable of the Sheeps and the Goats, He tells his listeners that those who will receive their inheritance of the kingdom of God are those who took care of the hun­gry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned in the here-and-now, because in doing so they are taking care of Jesus. While there are numerous interpretations of this passage, with respect to good works being or not being a path to salva­tion, it is clear at least from this passage that Jesus did not want his listeners ignoring the pain and needs of others. This passage is a call to take care of others because to care for others is to show that you care about Jesus. Through­out other passages in the Gospels, Jesus calls for those who follow Him to care for the poor. In Matthew 19:21, he tells a rich man to sell all his possessions and give his money to the poor. Throughout all four Gospels, He was constantly healing people from their suffering. Many Christians sum up Jesus’ commandments as loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Loving one’s neighbor inher­ently involves a degree of empathy, of emotional involve­ment in their suffering and disappointments.

Thus, from both a Christian angle and a humanist angle, I think happiness is not something we should be striving or aspiring towards, or viewing as the truth. Does this mean we should never feel happiness? Far from it. We should experience all of the emotions we have been en­dowed with and handle them appropriately. However, we should strive for things that are less ephemeral than a sin­gular feeling. As a Christian, I would argue that we should be striving for love and empathy, for caring about a neigh­bor’s suffering and trying to walk with them through it. I would not say, “love is the truth,” per se, because love has many different meanings and can be interpreted many different ways. One could even argue that love is just an­other feeling. However, to have a mentality that strives to care for and have compassion about those around one’s self is a truth to aspire towards. To be conscious of one’s actions and their impact on others and the surrounding environment, I would argue, is worth pursuing. To fight oppression and to feel enraged about the injustices of the world is worth pursuing. To grieve, to mourn because of the way people are hurt is worth pursuing. To feel a sense of joy or fulfillment because some progress is made or a struggling friend achieves some sense of contentment or closure or healing is worth pursuing.

However to pursue happiness just for the sake of hap­piness, whether it be from God or some other means? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

 

Endnotes

1. Williams, P. (2013). “Happy.” On G I R L. New York City, NY: Columbia Records.

2. Furler, S. (2013). “Pretty Hurts.” [Recorded by Beyoncé Knowles]. On Beyoncé. New York City, NY: Columbia Records.

3. Mescudi, S. (2009). “Pursuit of Happiness.” [Record­ed by Kid Cudi, MGMT, and Ratatat]. On Man on the Moon: The End of the Day. New York City, NY: Good Music.

4. Crowder, D. and Parker, J. (2009). “Oh, Happiness.” On Church Music. Roswell, GA; sixsteprecords.

5. Redman, M. (1995). “The Happy Song.” On Passion For Your Name. London, UK: Kingsway Records.

Christina is from St. Paul, Min­nesota and a special major in sociology/anthropology and educational studies. Her dream is for everyone to realize the game “Duck, Duck, Goose” is actually called “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.”

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