Aim for the top of the ladder in the pursuit of happiness - Dr Andy Bannister

Our culture is happiness obsessed. Every day, a million Westerners type “happiness” into Google. There are hundreds of books explaining how to find happiness, podcasts discussing it, movies and songs all about it.

Dr Andy Bannister, Solas
Dr Andy Bannister, Solas

But have you ever wondered why we humans pursue happiness? The rest of the animal kingdom seems content with the bare necessities: survival and reproduction. But humans? We need so much more – what’s going on?Let’s begin exploring this by asking what exactly we mean by the word “happiness”? The Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested there are actually four levels of happiness and to be truly happy, we must consider all four levels.Happiness level 1 is animal happiness and is all about fulfilling your appetites. I see the doughnut, I eat the doughnut, and I’m happy! But briefly, as now it’s gone. Sure, I can eat another – but we’re talking diminishing returns (and indigestion). Our other major appetite, sex, is similar. Yes, it can briefly bring happiness – but if you abuse it (for example treating another person as a means, not an end, great unhappiness follows). Indeed misuse any appetite (e.g. eating because we’re anxious, having one-night stands because we’re bored) and we soon end up deeply unhappy. And if you’re unhappy at level 1, suggested Aristotle, we must go up, to level 2.Happiness level 2 is all about comparison: about being better, faster, richer, smarter than others. Now this is fine to an extent: winning at sport, succeeding at work, coming top of the class. But trying to live here is deeply stressful – constantly worrying about no longer being the best. (And even if you hit the top, happiness can still elude you. Think of that famous line from the movie, Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Olympic bobsleigh team, where their coach tells them: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

So we need to head up to happiness level 3. This is all about living for others, pouring your time and energy out for somebody else. The classic example is parenthood; but if you don’t have kids, there are many ways you serve and help others. But trying to live at level 3 still ultimately produces unhappiness; not least because ironically it’s deeply selfish. For you’re not really helping others so much as helping yourself, trying to make yourself feel good and happy through other people.So where now? To paraphrase Aristotle: the top of the ladder, happiness level 4. Which is, quite simply, found through getting connected to an ultimate source of happiness outside yourself. What does that look like? Well, I’m reminded of something that Jesus of Nazareth said:

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“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.

The basic problem with happiness levels 1 to 3 is that we exhaust ourselves running after that ever elusive goal of happiness as it constantly recedes, like the end of the rainbow. Trying to find happiness this way will drive you crazy, cynical or both.But Jesus offers something refreshingly different. For Jesus claimed to be God himself, stepping into history; and as the very one who made us, he knows what we really need, what we were truly designed for.

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There is nothing inherently wrong with happiness levels 1 through 3, but they can’t ultimately satisfy us, for the simple reason we were made for so much more. But if we make it our goal in life not merely to be happy but to know Jesus, then we can discover something infinitely more than a happiness whose shine quickly fades; we can discover a joy that nothing can ever take away from us.

Dr Andy Bannister is Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity

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