Picked up a book at the library with an interesting title – The Happiness Project. I’m a few chapters into it, and while the premise is interesting, there are some profound conclusions to be drawn from the reciting of Gretchen Rubin’s tale of seeking happiness.
Here is the premise: Mrs. Rubin has a good life and knows it, yet she curiously finds that she feels like she could be happier. After much research of the history of happiness, she endeavors to spend a year becoming happier. For each month of the year, she maps out an area of her life that she is going to focus on. Month one is becoming happier by boosting energy. Month two, in addition to continuing the habits of boosting energy, she adds to that remembering love. Month three continues with aim higher. Etc.
It is in month two that a definition of happiness comes to her, and it looks like this: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” In other words, she set standards for good, bad, and right and focused on “generating positive emotions” (her words) in order to grow.
While interesting and not without the discovery of some useful principles. This process is doomed to fail. Maybe not in the pages of the book, but eventually, and here is why.
Idols will always let you down and your idols cannot forgive you.
You cannot just generate something from nothing. It is one of the laws of thermodynamics. For instance, an emergency generator produces electricity from gasoline. No gas, no electricity. It is this basic premise that Gretchen misses in her project. She is constantly doing. To find happiness, she has to be putting something in. Just to boost energy alone, she focuses on sleeping more, exercising better, organizing, nagging less, and acting more energetic. That’s just month one!
It is all about doing and setting a standard of performance.
As she relates herself, when she failed to live up to her standard of nagging less, she felt like a failure. Her idol could not forgive her, since it was an arbitrary line in the sand. She set the standard for feeling bad and achieved it. Even more, she struggled when her husband did not acknowledge her improvement in the nagging department. Her sense of happiness was reflected to her in his approval. Her idol let her down.
On another front, she did get very happy when she cleaned her closets and drawers and emptied shelves. Yet, related that she did not get such a profound sense of happiness from the daily maintenance of staying organized. Another way idols let us down is by the law of diminishing returns. As any drug user will tell you, it takes more drug to feel the same high. Idols make us work harder and harder for less and less benefit.
During the love month she treated her husband to the “week of extreme nice” in which she practiced love without expecting anything in return. Along with a certain level of happiness, she also relates resentment at her sacrifice not being acknowledged. And at the end of the week, she was relieved when the week was over and things could get back to normal. Seems she had some nagging to do.
The things that were making her happy were artificial standards that her effort at willpower could not maintain. Happiness was achievable in spurts, but not sustainable. Letdown.
As I’ve said in other blogs, I’m not trying to malign Gretchen Rubin. I like her book and I really respect all the effort and thought she put into this year. There are many principles here worth noting. But also worth noting is that since happiness needs to come from somewhere, she was going to experience failure at one point or another. What happens when she sprains her ankle and cannot exercise? Or forgets to act energetic? Or needs to stay up late with a sick child? Or does not get the response she needs from others when she loves them well? Her idol is going to fail her.
Came across this quote today by a gentleman named Henry Scougal in his work Life of God in the Soul of Man:
Worth or excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.
Here is how I think this applies. Ultimately, I see the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of personal redemption. We know within our soul that things are not right, so outside of Christ we attempt to do things like organize our lives, achieve physical fitness, and give and receive love. It is a redemption story. Happiness if found in redemption.
As evidenced in Gretchen Rubin’s book, our idols, the objects of our love, are going to leave our souls longing for more. They cannot be fulfilled for long by powerless idols. There will always be something above our standard of good.
But it is not like that in Christ. Christ needs nothing from us, for everything is his. His love is pure gift. We are chosen, not because of what we can produce, but simply because we are His creation, His image bearers. Being in Christ is not deserved, it is grace. When we love God in Christ, because we are made righteous not earning it, our soul can rest and be…happy.
Then it does not matter if my shelf is cluttered or I have love handles or if my spouse does not appreciate the things I do. There is not condemnation in Christ Jesus.
That is a happiness project.