Got happiness? What the Bible says about the good life

By Elaine Justice | Spirited Thinking | Dec. 13, 2012

Happiness may be a holiday staple—after all, "Happy Holidays" is part of the national lexicon, but the meaning of "happy" in the Bible is anything but well understood, says Emory's Brent Strawn, editor of a new volume, "The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life" (Oxford University Press, 2012).

"Culturally, there's a pollution or a missed definition of what happiness is," says Strawn. "When people say or think of the words ‘happy' or ‘happiness,' they often think of a syrupy sweet yellow smiley face. That's the icon of happiness."

People also summon up the so-called American dream, usually understood as having rather than being.

"When you really look to the Bible for things about human flourishing or the good life, you come away with something that is more variegated and complex than lots of money, lots of free time, and lots of pleasure," says Strawn.

Pursuit of Happiness: It's not what you think

The book is one of several products of a multi-year Pursuit of Happiness Project by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion. The specific focus in this volume on the Bible and happiness brought together experts in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament in consultation with research in positive psychology to, as Strawn puts it, "set the record straight on happiness when it comes to the Bible."

Perhaps the most famous American phrase linked with the idea of happiness is found in the Declaration of Independence where "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," are enumerated among "certain unalienable Rights."  But as Strawn points out, the meaning of "pursuit" also drifted a good bit since 1776.

"The 'Pursuit of Happiness' in the Declaration does not mean simply the 'pursuing' or 'seeking' of happiness," says Strawn. He cites historian Arthur Schlesinger's assertion that the Declaration is actually referring to "the practicing rather than the quest of happiness as a basic right equally with life and liberty."

"So, contrary to common (mis)understandings, the point was never that happiness was 'something a people were entitled simply to strive for—but as something that was theirs by natural right,'" he says, quoting Schlesinger.

"It seems clear that within the Declaration of Independence, happiness is not an individualistic quest," says Strawn. "Rather it's a matter of public policy—our government ought to ensure these things because they are inalienable rights of all citizens. All people should be able to experience happiness, not just have the chance to pursue it."

God and Happiness

Is God happy? Is happiness important to God? The Bible's answers to both questions is a solid yes, says Strawn. "When you really look at the Bible, it's apparent that God is happy in many parts of scripture. Among other things, God is happy with humans and cares about their wellbeing and flourishing."

Not only is God happy with the outcome of the creation in Genesis, God shows his concern with happiness in the ancestral stories in Genesis, calling Abraham and Sarah "with the expressed purpose of blessing them, providing them with progeny, even material possessions," Strawn says.

These blessings "are never solely for their own good, but 'for the blessing of all the families of the earth,'" says Strawn, quoting from Genesis 12.

That's not to say that passages describing the wrath of God aren't part of scripture as well, "but too often Western Christianity has focused overmuch on the wrath of God to the expense of other passages that are clearly about God's own happiness and God's happiness in human happiness."

A Balanced View

The fact that there's attention paid to the flourishing of the human individual in the Bible means that the life of faith, according to scripture, "is not solely one of self-emptying, self-denial, self-flagellation," says Strawn. "On its own, that sort of approach could never be a comprehensive expression of the flourishing life."

Instead, the Bible suggests what Strawn calls a "robust balance" on several fronts, including that of time, between happiness now and happiness in the future.

In fact, he says, "the Bible shows throughout that happiness is not solely a matter of 'the end' or 'the afterlife,' but very much a matter of concern for us in the here and now, which is why happiness should be a matter of public policy, and why the Bible's contributions to our understanding of happiness have significant social import even today."

Compare other religions' views on happiness

Every world religion has a different way for its believers to achieve happiness. And yet, many elements of each path are similar. How do Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism compare and contrast?