Benjamin Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I don’t know if beer is necessarily the proof, but Ben was on to something with his zippy proverb, something that a few of us have been slow to recognize: Yes, God really wants us to be happy.
More and more, I am convinced that learning how to be happy is a large part of redemption, not that happiness was a virtue espoused within my religious upbringing. On the contrary, heavy-hearted guilt was the de facto emotion of choice – along with hulking doses of shame, emotional anguish, and the deprivation of anything that resembled enjoyment.
It was as if happiness was forbidden, as if a person of faith did not deserve joy, as if it were a mortal sin should someone get caught with a smile on his or her face. Misery was normative, not cheerfulness, and the unspoken rule was clear: “We are Christians, therefore we can’t be happy – at least not until we are dead!” What an awful heresy such thinking and practice is, for the truth is startlingly different.
We all desire happiness, we chase it like thirsty souls seeking water in the desert, and this pursuit did not have to be written into our country’s founding documents for us to know its truth. It’s instinctive, a significant part of what it means to be human. So when someone, even a religious figure, prohibits or disparages happiness, that person is waging war against the soul.
Of course, all pursuits of happiness are not created equal. By saying, “All people should be happy,” is not the same thing as saying, “Do whatever it is that makes you happy.” The former is the gospel truth, but the latter can devolve into blind, selfish destruction, for with our natural desire for happiness comes an equally strong propensity for making choices that lead to misery instead of joy.
That is, we want to be happy, but not knowing how to be, we head off building lives and making plans that we think will get us there. Career choices, new automobiles, marriages, and palatial homes: All of these are pursuits on the road to happiness. But when that magical euphoria doesn’t arrive, we make different career choices, buy newer automobiles, find a different marriage or love interest, and build bigger homes, only for our pursuit to fall short once again.
The failure to find happiness has an obvious cause: Contentment can never be achieved by trying to forcibly shape reality into what we think it should be. That’s a recipe for heartbreak, not happiness, because the world (and the people in it), will never do what you think it should. Rather, happiness begins with a choice, choosing to accept life, yourself, others, and the world for what they are. After all, the world wasn’t put here to make you happy. Happiness is a choice you have to make, and it’s a choice God has left to you.