Focus On Happiness

Focus On Happiness

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The Bible and Happiness

Brent Strawn

For literally millennia, people of various sorts—but most especially, of course, religious people—have looked to the Bible for support, guidance, and advice on how to make it through life. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, especially the book of Proverbs, contains much practical advice on how to live life well. For its part, the New Testament, too, knows of practical advice on "making it through." The moral exhortation found in the letters spring immediately to mind, as does the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—7, and, within that and perhaps most famously of all, Jesus's Beatitudes.

This trend of looking to the Bible for advice seems as strong as ever, at least in the United States, though the range of concerns seems even broader than in the past. People now look to the Bible for advice about quite literally everything, from parenting to dieting. One resource even promises biblical insights into computers (Anderson 2001). But so many of these contemporary treatments are, in the end, unhelpful because the Bible simply does not address many modern topics, certainly not directly, and definitely not computers!

But what about happiness, the specific concern of this editorial and the driving force behind so much of our world? Does the Bible address happiness?

Much depends on what one means by "happiness." The words "happy" and "happiness" are rather ill-defined these days or, at least, overused. People say they are "happy" to be cancer-free but also "happy" that they had their favorite cereal for breakfast. These are very different emotional states but we use the same word for both. So, determining the Bible's relationship to happiness depends in no small part on the meaning of happiness.

Interestingly enough, when one digs into the meaning of happiness, one learns that it has a very long history. The philosophical study of happiness is as old as Aristotle and, in truth, is older than him. But Aristotle is seminal, and his work on what constitutes the good life is a starting point for many serious discussions of happiness today. This holds true for the most recent extensive and empirical study of happiness, which is the purview of Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology was pioneered by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1990s (see Seligman 2002). Since then it has grown into a large field of study. Instead of focusing on human pathologies—what is wrong with people—Positive Psychology tries to attend to what is right with people, what constitutes the best human life, and how to help people "get there."

As one would expect, Positive Psychology has produced much of lasting value to the study of the good life. Among other things, it has drawn on Aristotle's notion of how the good life should not be defined exclusively in terms of pleasure (Greek hedonia, from which we get the word "hedonism") but in terms of the flourishing life which is marked, among other things, by the cultivation of virtue. Aristotle used the term eudaimonia to describe this more robust understanding of happiness, and Positive Psychology has built on his insight, defining at least three kinds of life that can bring such happiness: the pleasurable life, the good life, and the meaningful life.

  • The pleasurable life is, obviously, marked by pleasurable experiences. It is hedonic in character. Unfortunately, the pleasurable life seldom lasts for very long and we know different individuals experience pleasure very differently, in part due to heredity. In the long view, the pleasurable life is the least important if only because it cannot produce long-lasting happiness.
  • The good life corresponds to Aristotle's pursuit of the virtues. It is the eudaimonic life.
  • The meaningful life is one that transcend s one's own self—it looks beyond an individual life to a purpose or cause that rises above one's own pleasures, even one's own virtues.

Much more could be said about Aristotle and Positive Psychology and their respective understandings of happiness but even this brief overview is enough to return to the Bible with a new set of eyeglasses, as it were, to see what the Bible might say about happiness or, perhaps better, the good life.

The first thing that could be said is that if one is hoping to find syrupy sweet happiness in the Bible, one will be seriously disappointed. The Bible is full of a lot of grief and sorrow, not to mention tragedy. One need only consider the book of Psalms, which is among many people's favorite and most beloved portions of the Bible. Sure, the Psalms have their fair share of hymns of praise, which celebrate God in various ways, but the predominant type of psalm is the individual lament psalm, which is a poem that speaks intensely of the poet's grief and sorrow. The feelings are as far from pleasurable as one can imagine. There is no hedonism in Psalm 22, only an-hedonic pain:

"My God! My God,
why have you left me all alone?
Why are you so far from saving me—
so far from my anguished groans?
My God, I cry out during the day,
but you don't answer;
even at nighttime I don't stop." (Ps 22:1–2, CEB)

Indeed, in the Psalms, the only people that live pain-free lives are the wicked (Ps 73:3–5, 12)! The life of faith and the life with God, by contrast, is full of pain: "I remember God and I moan," writes the psalmist (Ps 77:3, CEB; see Brown 2012).

Or consider the New Testament. In the Beatitudes, Jesus says "blessed" (or "happy") are "you who are poor," "you who hunger now," "you who weep now" (Luke 6:20–21, CEB), and the "people who grieve" (Matt 5:4, CEB; see Holladay 2012). According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus actually cites Ps 22:1 as his last words from the cross (see Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34), and even today Christians call the day of Jesus' death "Good Friday." According to Acts, early followers of Jesus, after being flogged by the Sanhedrin, are said to rejoice "because they had been regarded as worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name" (Acts 5:41, CEB; see Green 2012).

What is going on here?

Whatever it is, it is certainly not syrupy sweet happiness and definitely not hedonic pleasure. What is going on in passages like these—and the Bible is quite full of them—is something far more akin to the good life of Aristotelian eudaimonism or the meaningful life of Positive Psychology. The psalmists and apostles are willing to endure difficult circumstances—not always happily!—not simply because "such is life," but at least partly because of a larger eudaimonistic framework, one that, for example, views the suffering as temporary or perhaps the hard means to a better end (i.e., it might cultivate virtue—whether by design or simply as an unintended outcome). Another reason these figures are willing to endure is because they find meaning beyond their own experiences of pleasure or pain. For the psalmists that meaning is the life of faith and their prayers to God; for the apostles, it is their belief in Jesus as the Christ.

This is not to say that the Bible is against hedonic pleasure—far from it! It is clear that even a prophetic book like Isaiah, which cares deeply about matters of social equity and justice, is nevertheless also interested in a vision of happiness that is a blend of altruistic activity on behalf of others but that also includes attention to the "simpler pleasures" of human flourishing, like a good meal or a glass of wine (Lapsley 2012). Nowhere is this clearer, perhaps, than the book of Ecclesiastes, which after staring soberly at the hard realities of life, death, and human finitude, repeatedly counsels enjoyment—as much as one can, as long as one can, wherever one can find it: in eating, drinking, companionship, and work (Eccl 2:24–26; 3:12–14, 22; 5:18–20; 7:14; 8:15; 9:7–10; 11:7–10; Newsom 2012). This enjoyment, the author repeatedly asserts, is the very gift of God; God has approved of such things long ago (Eccl 9:7).

But hedonic pleasure in the Bible is captured within a larger eudaimonistic framework. Said differently—and the Positive Psychology literature agrees and brings significant empirical support to the point—hedonic pleasure will only go so far and will only satisfy so much. And, when the going gets tough, pleasure simply doesn't go nearly far enough and it won't satisfy for long before it's completely gone. This is what puts the lie to so many treatments of the Bible that find in it a quick recipe for wealth or health or prosperity of any kind: be it physical, material, financial, even spiritual. Life just isn't that easy and neither is the Bible. But that doesn't mean life (or the Bible) isn't or can't be full of happiness. It just means that the happiness that is found therein is of a certain sort: the eudaimonistic sort, the virtuous sort, the meaningful sort, which is ultimately about human flourishing not human pleasure (though it will certainly include decent doses of that).

Such a perspective on the Bible's larger take on happiness helps us understand otherwise difficult parts. Texts like Job, for instance. Despite deep suffering, the end of the book of Job—not simply the restoration of much (not all!) of his fortune by God in chapter 42, but also Job's restoration to his friends and family, the birth of children, the names of his daughters, and his description at death ("old and full of days") suggests that Job died a happy man (see Strawn 2012b:208–10). If that could be predicated of Job, after his profound tragedy, then it is conceivably true of the rest of us who have not suffered as deeply as he did.

Grieving Job and His Friends. Waechter, Eberhard. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany. Erich Lessing/Art Resource.

Or, from a completely different perspective, one might reflect on James 1:2–4 (NRSV):

"My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing."

Few people enjoy "trials" of any sort or kind. But note that James does not say that one should experience difficulties as joyous, but rather that one should consider them that way. Then too note how the difficulties (unpleasant an-hedonic experiences, to be sure) are placed within a larger framework that is chock-full of virtue: faith, endurance, maturity, completeness (Strawn 2012b:310–12). So, this is not a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of comment in James, but rather a get-your-hands-dirty-while-suffering-in-order-to-become-a-better-person-at-the-end kind of exhortation. Positive Psychology has discussed the notion of Posttraumatic Growth—the way even devastating losses can often transform people so that they become more resilient, appreciate life more, and improve their relationships. That idea could profitably be applied to both Job and James.

In the final analysis, then, happiness in the Bible is definitely a pursuit: it is often the result of a long, hard-fought process (Strawn 2012b). It is seldom and maybe never a syrupy sweet affair, or, if it is that, it isn't that for long. It is not easily definable as the American Dream, if that dream is glossed as "lots of money, lots of pleasure, and lots of free time." The Bible is too realistic for all that—far more like the gritty reality of everyday America, not its pie-in-the-sky (pipe?) "Dream." But this is not only a critical word against contemporary pursuits of happiness, though it may well be that. It is also an encouraging word, because it suggests that the Bible has something important to say—and something important to say precisely about the good life—to those who, on the face of it, at least in simplistic understandings of "happiness," don't seem to be anywhere near experiencing a good life. And yet, all appearances to the contrary, such people may well be experiencing it, or, at the least, may be on the way to experiencing it (or perhaps better: considering it [see James 1:2–4 above]). But the "it" that is being experienced (or considered) is, once again, almost certainly not pleasure (definitely not pleasure for those who are presently in pain), but, nevertheless and despite that, something that has to do with meaning, flourishing, and fulfillment.

Job Restored to Prosperity. Laurent De La Hire. The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk.

That is no small insight. It is also one that is itself a hard-fought achievement, and in more than one way. It is hard-fought in the ups and downs, joys and sufferings of real life. It is also an insight that is reached only through the hard work of reading the whole Bible, not just pieces of it. And it is also the result of hard work in correlating the biblical data with important insights from other disciplines and discourses like that of Positive Psychology.


  • Ken Anderson, Little Book of Where to Find it in the Bible: The Ultimate A to Z Resource Fully Illustrated, Hundred s of Contemporary Topics, for Users of KJV, NIV, NKJV, CEV, LB, NRSV, and Other Popular Translations (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
  • William P. Brown, "Happiness and Its Discontents in the Psalms," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 95–115.
  • Joel B. Green, "'We Had to Celebrate and Rejoice!': Happiness in the Topsy-Turvy World of Luke-Acts," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 169–85.
  • Carl R. Holladay, "The Beatitudes: Happiness and the Kingdom of God," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 141–67.
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, "A Happy Blend: Isaiah's Vision of Happiness (and Beyond)," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 75–94.
  • Carol A. Newsom, "Positive Psychology and Ancient Israelite Wisdom," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 117–39.
  • Martin E. P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
  • Colleen Shantz, "'I Have Learned to Be Content': Happiness According to St. Paul," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 187–201.
  • Brent A. Strawn, ed., The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012a).
  • ________, "The Triumph of Life: Towards a Biblical Theology of Happiness," in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (ed. Brent A. Strawn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012b), 287–322.
  • R. Norman Whybray, The Good Life in the Old Testament. London: T & T Clark, 2002.

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