(Happy) New Year, part 1

Have a yearHave a nice yearFor the last few years, instead of buying a wall calendar from the store, we’ve had them made from our own photos.  It’s not quite a formal ritual, but for me there is a certain amount of ceremony in hanging a new calendar, a sense of fresh beginnings.

To some extent, we spread that sense of new possibilities when we wish others a “Happy New Year.”  But more commonly, I think, we offer the greeting in an unreflective sort of way, a slightly amped-up version of “Have a Nice Day.”  Please understand, I don’t mean to be grumpy by putting the word “happy” in parentheses in the title of this post.  I simply want to ask what I think is an important question at the beginning of the new year: What is happiness?

In the next post, I’ll explore a possible biblical response.  But here, I want to draw on the extensive psychological research literature on happiness (see especially this book by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, and this one, just published) to make a simple point: much of what our popular consumer culture tells us about happiness is a lie.

For example, will having more money make you happy?  Yes–if you live in poverty.  But once you get safely out of the poverty range, the relationship between money and happiness vanishes.

But wouldn’t getting a raise or winning the lottery make you happy?  Sure–but only temporarily.  After a while, the pleasure simply wears off, and you pretty much go back to being as happy (or unhappy) as you were before; psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation.”

We tell ourselves, “If only…” and fill in the conditions that we think would make us happy.  But see, for example, if the gadget you were so excited to find under the Christmas tree is still so enthralling by the end of January.  By then, you’ll probably take it for granted.  Indeed, you might curse it if it doesn’t work properly.  The surge of happiness that comes from a positive change of circumstances simply doesn’t last.  (The good news is that the un-happiness that comes from negative events is usually temporary too.)

In fact, research suggests that circumstances only account for a very small percentage of why one person is happier than another.  Genetics plays a much bigger role.  Sorry, but some people are simply wired to have more positive emotions, so you might want to cut Grumpy Gus a little slack.

But from a theological point of view, here’s where the research gets interesting.  Beyond circumstances and genetics, the rest of what explains why some people are happier than others has to do with how they think and how they live.  Put differently: the people who are most content in life, regardless of the ups and downs of fortune and misfortune, are the ones who intentionally practice things like gratitude, kindness, and forgiveness.

Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this.  We are commanded in Scripture to be grateful, kind, and forgiving, because such things are intrinsic to the pursuit of holy living.  At the same time, though, isn’t it interesting that researchers have discovered that these things will also improve our sense of well-being?  By commanding holiness, God isn’t trying to spoil the party.  Maybe this is the kind of person he has made us to be; we flourish best when we are in line with his will.

Having a Happy New Year shouldn’t depend on getting the things we want or having the dice roll our way in 2013.  Bad things will happen.  Whatever the circumstances, instead of pursuing the things that really won’t make us happy anyway, we need to pursue what matters to God: a life of holiness and blessedness.

More on that in the next post.