Charles Manson and his gang are responsible for the brutal murders of several people in 1969. Although Manson is an extreme example, most people in the hippie movement during the 1960s were like him in that they argued that no rules, drug use, free love, and immediate gratification were the keys to happiness. And how did it work out for Manson and his gang? So far, they have spent over 35 years in prison. No one would suggest they have had a happy life.
I once counseled a woman who allowed herself to become dominated by her abusive boyfriend. Sue was a woman who was looking for happiness in a relationship no matter what it cost. Like many other women, she had been prepared for this kind of behavior by the physical and sexual abuse she experienced during childhood. When I met her, she was a nice looking lady in her late 30s who had already been in prison almost 20 years. Although she never physically harmed anyone, she participated in two bank robberies with her boyfriend. Because she was poor and could not afford expensive legal help, she was given a lengthy prison sentence for each robbery, with the sentences running consecutively. She will probably be in her early 40s when she gets out of prison. As a teenager, while pursuing her dream of happiness, she made some foolish choices that brought her great sadness. Instead of finding happiness in a relationship, she found only prison. Why did this happen? For Sue to understand her behavior, she must recognize the flaws in her original beliefs about happiness.
Thankfully, Sue now has good insight in why her early life choices were flawed and I am confident she will do well after she is released from prison. Charles Manson, being the psychopath that he is, will never have insight into his bad choices. One does not have to go to prison, however, in order to suffer from poor life choices. Instead, people may experience disappointment, sadness, loneliness, depression, poor health, and poverty in their efforts to be happy. Worldly people are not the only ones who often fail to find happiness. Christians can also experience the unhappiness that comes from their choices in life, which is why a study like this is important for everyone.
Psychiatrist William Glasser (1998) argues that happiness ought to be the goal of people’s lives. At first, I felt this was a wrong-headed approach because people usually justify their poor choices by saying they want to be happy. The crucial point, however, is that people often do not know what will bring them happiness. Who would argue that Charles Manson and his gang found happiness in life? Sue was looking for love, freedom, and happiness, but she found misery instead. Misery is not only found in prison, but also in the negative effects of drugs, violence, selfishness, loneliness, and unloving sex. Drug addicts believe that drugs will bring them some measure of happiness or, at the least, an escape from some unpleasant surrounding, but the long-term result is unhappiness. So, the goal of finding happiness is a worthy goal, but people are often confused about how to get there, which is why it is important that we seek guidance in the search for happiness.
Sometimes people present Christianity in such a way that it appears to require them to give up their happiness in order to serve God. There is no doubt that following Jesus involves self-denial. Biblical faith requires this of all of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Denial and self-discipline, however, are not about losing your happiness but actually finding it. There is a hint of this in the next verse: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (v. 35). Ultimately, eternal salvation will bring true happiness in the life to come, but the gospel can also bring happiness to people in this life. Notice how unhappy people become when they fail to practice discipline and self-control. For example, drug addicts think they can find happiness by experiencing the immediate gratification of drugs, but drug addiction eventually brings misery. Without the commitment to deny oneself the pleasure of drugs, the addict will never stop using. Therefore, one must be willing to lose his life of drugs before he can find his life of happiness. Perhaps this is why Paul says, “I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
The brothers at Philippi were told to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), but how can people possibly be happy by letting God control their lives? It is because God, who created humankind, knows what will make us happy, and if we listen to his instructions, we will find happiness. The Bible says, “Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).
Therefore, it is legitimate to seek happiness as a goal both in this life and the life to come. The happiness goal helps people define their decision-making process and provides the motivation to sacrifice for a future benefit. Some of these choices will not be easy and will require people to deny themselves pleasurable experiences in the short-term for their happiness goals. It is like the child who must learn to value school and homework for the pleasure it can bring in being successful in life. In this way, children can find the motivation to discipline themselves in their educational experience. Granted, children are different and some will naturally find more enjoyment in education than others, but this only demonstrates that people have a wide range of aptitudes and interests. We must still make the hard choices that lead to happiness or misery. Despite the existence of individual differences, everyone is benefited by taking a more positive approach to decision-making.
The key to making the right choices is to determine what decisions bring the greatest amount of happiness. This requires us to step outside of ourselves and view ourselves more objectively. For example, we might ask, “Will this choice really bring me the greatest amount of happiness?” Or, “Is this decision in my own best interest?” Happiness is not easily defined when it is applied to life choices. It is often confused with sensual pleasure, which can lead to happiness but can also lead to misery. So there must be wisdom applied to our decision-making process if we are to be successful in reaching our goals of happiness. God has given each one of us the common sense to evaluate the pros and cons of certain decisions. We can also rely on the human wisdom of others, including parents, teachers, experts, friends, and counselors. Finally, we can turn to the wisdom of God for insight in the kinds of decisions that bring happiness.
J B Myers