Happiness Simplified: An Experiment

Do I really want to be happy?

I’ve asked myself this question hundreds of time throughout my life, usually during the more bleak periods. Part of me resents even asking it, since the question itself seems to buy into the notion that the pathway to what you want lies in the wanting itself—that desire is the key to realization. That idea is pop psychology at best, prosperity gospel at worst.

Still, I ask myself. Do I want to be happy?

The answer is yes, of course. I want to be happy. Who doesn’t? But I also want to grow my hair back, be a professional baseball player, and become a best-selling author before Christmas. Just because I desire something does not mean it is attainable.

Happiness, on the other hand, is attainable. I know this because I’ve had it for most of my life, and because I’ve seen it in so many people made beautiful by their joy, regardless of the circumstances in which they live. It seems like a small thing, a basic right even. To be happy. It shouldn’t take that much to achieve, should it?

Maybe. The “should” question doesn’t get us very far in this case, however. When we are searching for happiness, it matters little how the world should be. The more important thing to note is how the world, in fact, is. And in the darkest of times, the world is a cold and pitiless dessert, and happiness a lone green plant buried beneath clear ice too thick to crack. We know it is there, but we can’t get to it.

I’ve thought a lot about the cruel imprisonment of happiness in recent weeks. The ministry I’ve devoted my professional life to is struggling, raising all kinds of internal turmoil. Bad news continues to pour in on both national and international fronts. And everything always seems worse when it’s 97 degrees in September and the warnings about climate change become an inescapable reality. I worry about these things, all of which share one key characteristic.

They are all utterly beyond my control. I can scream and pound my fists. But I cannot dent them, much less crack them. They are part of my environment that I did not create, and failure to adapt will only leave me bloody. Just because I want things to be different doesn’t mean they will change, any more than wanting longer legs and better reflexes will make me a major league infielder.

If I want to be happy, I will have to choose to be happy, regardless of the circumstances.

The thing I am coming to realize, however, is that the choice to be happy is like the choice to be a writer, or a disciple, or anything worth making a core component of our identities. We can’t make one choice and call ourselves happy. We have to make the choice to be happy, over and over again.

Let’s simplify it further. We don’t have to choose happiness above all other things. We only have to choose it over whatever is keeping us from it at a given moment. I can hone my narrative of disappointment and despair, nurture my sense of cosmic injustice at my failures. Or I can choose to reject that narrative in favor of a more gracious one—one more closely aligned with how I believe Jesus sees us.

But I can’t have both happiness and hopelessness. I have to decide which one I want more, choose it over and over again, and trust that those choices will add up to something substantial over time.

Believe me, I am not suggesting that I do this very well, or that any of it is easy. But simplifying happiness by choosing it over one obstacle at a time seems like a plan with a lot of potential. I believe it is possible, and so I continue to work the experiment.

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