In the words of the Ben Folds Five song Underground, “Can we be happy?”.

It’s not a question you hear articulated particularly often. Perhaps it’s not really up for debate but I’ve been thinking about it anyway. I suppose then that there are two questions to ask here – the more abstract question “Can we be happy?” and the subsequent more pragmatic question “If so, how can we be happy?”.

This has been in my thoughts this week after watching a talk Peter Rollins gave at Fuller Seminary last year (embedded below). In this talk and those he gave at Greenbelt last year he discusses how we live in a society permeated with signposts pointing us to the source of our future happiness – buy this car, eat this food, wear these clothes, find the right partner – that remind us that we must not be satisfied where we are but must keep moving, keep striving (like some sharks must keep swimming to stay alive). Yes, you’ve gotten a bit closer that you were this time last year but you’re still not happy because this [product, relationship, experience] is the missing piece of the puzzle that’ll finally tip you into sustained happiness. In his commentary, he points out that there is a risk that in the church we have turned God into a super-product – I’ve certainly heard it preached that we should repent of our pursuit of things and instead pursue God for it’s only in Him that we’ll find satisfaction – forget all those other products, this (God) is what you need!

Anyway, that’s another conversation but the other thing that’s got me thinking about this is the statistic that crossed my path in the week that over 43 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written in the UK last year. To put that in perspective, the population of the UK is around about 62 million. I’m sure the statistic for the US is something equally astounding. Despite having a quality of life unimaginable for anyone but kings a few hundred years ago, the answer to questions like “are we happy?” or “are we satisfied?” is, in general, probably not. Now, I know there’s a distinction between unhappiness and depression and I also must say that I think antidepressants are a good thing when appropriate and we should try as a society to get past the stigma attached to them. That said, I think we also need to get past the idea that it’s bad to be unhappy. Sadness has to some extent become a taboo in our society – using the classic test for social taboos of “would it be appropriate conversation over dinner with friends?” – we all have to keep our sadness to ourselves so as not to make other people feel uncomfortable thereby adding an extra layer of shame to our sadness. We wouldn’t deny our other emotions like we do our sadness. Another thing Rollins has been talking about recently is providing liturgical space in church for doubt and sadness. I certainly take issue with the constant “up”-ness of the average Sunday service in the evangelical tradition. Church should be a place and community where we can stop denying our sadness to ourselves and each other but also find comfort in that. If you’re sad, be sad. Especially in church.

So to return to the question “Can we be happy?”, if you look at our behaviour, it definitely looks like we believe we can be happy but only ever as a future state, always just beyond our reach (or just within our reach once our current aspiration du jour is realised). It’s rare that we allow ourselves to be satisfied in the now – it would appear that we’re a species addicted to a cycle of being dissatisfied, finding a job/object/person/etc to put our hopes in (in the full sense of the phrase) and then being disappointed when though we achieve it we find we’re still not satisfied. I sometimes wonder whether we’re more unhappy in the rich West because we are able to repeat this cycle at a faster rate (and are encouraged to do so by people who want to sell us stuff) so the fruitlessness of the process is more obvious to us (though we wouldn’t dare articulate it) – new shoes?, meh, new car?, meh, new boyfriend?, meh, new hobby?, meh, iPod?, meh, iPhone?, meh, iPad?, meh, iPhone 4?, meh, iPhone 4S? etc[1].

I think we need to be aware of this cycle. I see it play out repeatedly in my own life and the lives of my friends. I don’t know if we can get away from it but I feel like I’d like to try! To go back to Rollins’s talk, he discusses our perpetual dissatisfaction as a consequence of original sin. I’m not sure I’d want to bring that controversial topic into it but certainly the way we put our hopes in things (or people) to satisfy us looks like the epitome of idolatry. Rollins suggests that we should therefore lay down the pursuit of happiness in the knowledge that we can never be happy (because our unhappiness is rooted at our deepest level) but that in doing so we may find something deeper. As his audience rightly points out in the Q&A, this is quite similar to the elements of Buddhism that lead to the idea of detachment. Although I see as to some extent a validation of his thoughts I would say (as Rollins does to some extent) that the appropriate “Christian” response to the troubles in our inner and outer worlds should always be engagement rather than stoicism.

Anyway, here’s the video. It’s quite long but well worth an hour of your time (if you skip the Q&A).

Peter Rollins lecture at Fuller Seminary & the Brehm Center from Brehm Center on Vimeo.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It saddens me that we (I) bow so willingly to the “planned obsolescence” model of technology marketing where the life-changing must-have of this month becomes suddenly unfit for purpose the next month but we still believe it (and literally buy into it) when Apple or whoever tells us that this time they’ve finally cracked it – the is The One.