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The Pursuit of a Different Kind of Happiness

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The happiness the world encourages us to pursue is fleeting. It’s time to seek a happiness that’s not contingent on positive circumstances.

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Positive psychology, the church and Christian counselors can be partners in helping people redefine the good life, but first we have to be clear about it ourselves. The message we often hear in contemporary society is this: If you aren’t happy, change your life to find happiness again. Get a new job, get out of that troubling marriage, try the latest medication being peddled on primetime television, get into therapy, do whatever you have to do to find happiness again. This is what author Russ Harris calls The Happiness Trap. We can pursue a sort of happiness that involves pleasure, gratification and immediate gladness, but in the process we often end up like a caged mouse running around and around on that wheel, always pursuing something that’s fleeting. The alternative is to face into our present experiences, even the unpleasant ones, and to seek a life filled with purpose and meaning. We can pursue feeling good, and it probably won’t work, or we can pursue living well.

I wonder whether we sometimes succumb to the same trap in American Christianity. We bring our troubles to God, too often assuming that God’s primary desire is to remove our suffering and make us happy. But what if God has a different sort of happiness in mind for us—one that calls us to virtue-based living? The apostle Paul, someone familiar with suffering, wrote about this in his letter to Christians scattered throughout Rome: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Rom. 5:3–5). If we spend our efforts avoiding pain, it catches up with us anyway, but if we accept pain, we have the choice of not letting it be our boss. Even amidst suffering we see God doing good work and pointing us toward a life of hope, faith and love—the Christian virtues.

Positive psychology and the church could be partners in promoting a new understanding of the good life in contemporary society, one that focuses more on virtue than pleasure, more on being good than on feeling good. How’s that for an ambitious agenda?

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Excerpted from The Science of Virtue by Mark R. McMinn. Used by permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2017. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com

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