BCC Breakfast, The Pursuit of Happiness, September 28, 2018
This morning, I’ve titled my presentation “The Pursuit of Happiness”, and this is an issue that I’ve spent a lot of time researching because this summer, I taught an eight-week series on it. So, what I’m going to do is share with you some thoughts I think that would be beneficial to you as we consider this issue of the pursuit of happiness.
What I think I’m going to do is divide it into three parts. The first part, I’m going to talk about the current state of happiness and the lives of Americans. And then, secondly, I’m going to talk about various components, or factors, that impact the level of happiness that you experience in this life. And then finally, I’m going to share what I call the foundation of a joyful happy life, and I’m going to start by making a very bold statement. I really believe this. Most adult Americans struggle to find happiness on a consistent basis. In fact, I would say most people are unhappy. Nobody wants to admit that. Think about what Augustine said. He says, “Is not a happy life the thing that all desire, and is there anyone who altogether desires it not?” Think about what he’s saying. He’s saying, in one sense, this is what everyone is chasing, this is what everybody is after. This is the goal, but think about it. Who wants to admit they fail to find happiness? It’s like admitting I’ve failed at life. I could spend my entire presentation sharing the evidence for this claim that most American adults are unhappy, but I’m just going to share a couple of thoughts, and then I’m gonna move on to my second part.
I take you back to 1930. Sigmund Freud wrote a book on The Unhappiness in Civilization. He says, “It’s pervasive.” Fast-forward, The New York Times, September 2003, a fascinating article titled, “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness”. I will read to you parts of it. The article is about our mistaken belief of what will produce happiness. It’s based on research by four men. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, economist George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon, and the psychologist and Nobel Laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman of Princeton. They conducted this extensive academic study to explore what produces happiness in people’s lives. In the study, they examine the ways we make decisions that we believe will lead to genuine happiness, and they examine how people actually felt once they got or experienced what they wanted. Ultimately, they were seeking to find out, do our decisions about life give us the emotional happiness that we expect. In the findings, they began to wonder if everything we’ve ever thought about life choices, put in, about happiness, has been at least somewhat naive and if we’re greatly mistaken. In other words, we overestimate the actual intensity and duration of our emotional experiences. The researchers give an example of how we might believe an expensive automobile might make us feel wonderful, however, the research is quite clear that such a purchase always turns out to be less exciting than you anticipate, and its excitement lasts for a much shorter period than you can imagine. Gilbert says, listen to this, “It’s not that you can’t get the things that you think will make you happy.” He says, “It just does not give you the thrill you anticipated. Furthermore, they point out that most people, most people do not know what will lead to their ultimate, because our desires, they say, bear little relation to the things that truly make us happy.”
Do you hear what they’re saying? They’re saying we think we know what will make us happy, but once we get it, or once we experience it, it does not produce any sense of lasting happiness. In fact, you, in one sense, it lets us down, and what’s so interesting about this article is, they don’t provide an answer. Okay, they say the things that we think will provide happiness don’t, but then they don’t say, this is what will lead to your ultimate well-being; they just kind of leave you hanging. This isn’t surprising because the fourth man that I mentioned, he’s quite famous, he won a Nobel Prize, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton. He spent 20 years of his life, two decades, studying this issue of happiness, and eventually, he abandoned his research. These are his words. He said, “I was unable to come to any conclusive insights regarding a person’s happiness.” Now, what a bummer is that. You spend 20 years of your life and you said, yet, I can’t figure this out.
Philosopher John Gray, quite an interesting man, he is an atheist, very pessimistic, wrote a book called Straw Dogs, and in it, he asked the question, and confronts the question, why has drug addiction and drug abuse just proliferated so much? What’s going on? Listen to what he says. “Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth in Western culture. What is that truth? It is that, for most people, happiness is beyond reach. Human life is unavoidably hard and unhappy for the vast majority of people and always will be. In the secular worldview, all happiness and meaning has got to be found in this lifetime and in this world because that’s all there is. To live with any hope then, secular people must believe that we can eliminate most sources of unhappiness. For the majority of people, but that is impossible.” You know, it strikes me, as we think about this, as I talk about this, that when you look at somebody’s life, particularly men, if you look at a man’s life, you really don’t know what’s going on. You don’t really know, is that person happy. What’s going on in his life, because, you know, let’s face it guys, it’s easy for us to fake it. I saw a guy recently, and I’ve known this guy for a long time, and he’s struggled with life. I mean, I know that; he’s shared with me. I hadn’t seen him in a while and I asked him the other day, hey, how you doing. He’s, I’m living the dream. I thought, are you kidding me. That’s the way we are. It’s amazing how we can fake it so easily, and this struck me powerfully, powerfully, when I read an article in The New York Times about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Their suicides, I don’t know if you remember. I think this was back in the spring, maybe. I mean, two famous people, and they both killed themselves in the same week. She was some kind of fashion designer, he was a celebrity chef and had his own TV show. Both of them were very famous and very wealthy and everybody that knew him was shocked because their lives seemed to be so good, but this article said it so well. Listen to this. “Their deaths were noteworthy because of how powerfully it speaks to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re actually experiencing on the inside. Between their public faces and their private realities, between their visible swagger and their invisible pain. ‘Parts Unknown’, that was true of Bourdain, that was true of Spade.” The author says, “That’s true of every one of us.” And then listen to this. “Their deaths certainly reflect the faultiness of our assumptions, the deceptiveness of appearances, and the complexities of the human soul.” Now, you may be wondering, is there an optimistic side of this message? Is there a path to true happiness? And the answer is absolutely. Absolutely.
Now, I want to talk, and I was hesitant to do this because I have so much material to draw on, but I’m going to take maybe seven or eight minutes, and I want to talk about four factors that I think truly contribute to and impact a person’s level of happiness. I’m going have to be very brief because, just a lack of time. If you want more information on any of this, I can provide it to you, but, four factors.
The first factor is, I think, incredibly significant, and that’s living with a sense of purpose. Living with a sense of meaning in your life. I think it’s a good question you should consider this morning. Do I live this life with a sense of purpose? Does my life have real meaning to it? Viktor Frankl, in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most significant books written in the last hundred years, he was a Jewish psychiatrist, he spent three or four years in a Nazi death camp, and right after he got out, he wrote this book and he says this. He says, “Happiness is a byproduct of living a meaningful life.” And I think he’s on to something there, however, if you think about it, though, the foundation of a meaningful life is to be able to answer life’s big questions, those questions that have faced mankind since the beginning of time, the questions that the philosophers have asked. Questions like, Who am I as a human being? Am I just a sophisticated animal? And why am I here? What is the reason for my earthly existence? And then, what is my ultimate destiny? Is there anything after this life? These are questions that have plagued mankind for centuries, and if you really look at them closely, you realize they’re all spiritual questions. They have to do with your spiritual life.
Three years ago, in fact, it was September of 2015, the message that I shared that morning was “The Search for Meaning in a Chaotic World”, and we have a number of those CDs here this morning, so, if that’s something that you might be interested in pursuing and learning more of, you can listen to that particular message.
Now, the second factor, and this one’s not, this one’s pretty self-evident, I don’t know that anybody would disagree, is the quality of your relationships. The quality of your relationships. I mean, think about it, guys, do you think it’s possible to find true joy and happiness if you struggle with loneliness? I don’t think you can. Well let me ask you another one. This might hit home, close to some of you, and I asked a large group of men this question and not one of them said yes. The question was, do you think you can find true joy and happiness if you live in an unhappy marriage, and most men said, it’d be difficult. That’d be hard, and then, what about your children, what if your relationship with your children is struggling. I mean, it’s hard, really, to experience a real joyfulness about life. You see, God designed us to be relational beings. That’s what he designed us to be, and if we were not relational beings, if you think about it, there would be no such thing as loneliness, and yet, this is something that plagues men’s lives because we don’t let anybody, we really don’t let anybody in. We don’t want to share our true selves. That’s why I can contend that the men’s groups that we have are so significant in guys’ lives, where they can talk about the substantive issues of life. They can be transparent. That is so healthy, that is so good for men. You know, if you think about it, there’s really only one thing in life that can grow in love and richness and enjoyment over time, and that’s your relationship with others.
You think about it, material possessions can’t do that. They immediately start going down in enjoyment once you purchase it and the reason is, is that your relationships are organic. They have the capacity to grow in intimacy, and in depth, and enjoyment over time, but they have to be properly nurtured, so, let me just say this, and then this leads into the third factor. There’s only one thing you bring to your relationships and that’s yourself, and I contend that the healthier you are as a man, the healthier your relationships will be with others. To be a healthy person, which really is the third factor, when I say a healthy person, I’m talking about mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and most significantly, spiritually. The question is, are you healthy? Are you healthy? Think about this for a second. When you think about happiness, and this is very Biblical, Jesus talks about it. Really, happiness has to be experienced in the now, today. It can’t be experienced yesterday, that has passed. Unfortunately, a lot of people are planning on being happy in the future, but true happiness has to be experienced in the now, in the present. But the problem of it for so many people is, they can’t, and the reason they can’t is they’re weighed down by baggage from their past. Think about these words. Anger, bitterness, hatred, guilt, shame, regret, this is all about the past, and one of the things I’ve discovered is, these are issues that so many men struggle with, and it weighs them down. It prevents them from experiencing true happiness in the now, and they so easily can sabotage your relationships.
And then, you have the problem living with the future. Think about the future. You know, the big issue with the future is this: uncertainty. Uncertainty over what’s going to happen in your future, with the knowledge and recognition that things could turn out badly. You just don’t know because there’s so much uncertainty, and uncertainty produces fear and anxiety and worry. At our last breakfast back in the spring, I spoke on “The Fears That Men Struggle With”. The demand for that CD was as high as any I’ve ever done. We have some of them here today, if you want a copy of them, or you can listen to it on our website, or download it, but think about these words. Bitterness, anger, hatred, guilt, shame, regret, issues of the past, they make us unhealthy, and they steal our joy and happiness, and this is the one of the reasons Christ came into the world. To heal us, to restore us. I love that word “restore”. It means to take something that’s old or something that’s beaten up and to repair it and make it like it’s new and that’s what God wants to do in the lives of each one of us. And then you got fear, worry, anxiety, all about the future, and the uncertainty of the future, and God wants to give us a hope about the future, confidence about the future so that you can be healthy and live well in the now. And really, to experience true joy and happiness in this life.
The final factor, it’s not an obvious one, but it’s one of great significance. I’m not sure how aware we are of this, but Blaise Pascal, the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher who I quote often, Albert Einstein believed who may have been the smartest man to ever live, he saw all human beings on a desperate search for happiness, but they were discovering it to be elusive. He believed that unhappiness is perhaps the most obvious and pervasive feature of the human experience. He says, the problem is, I can’t get anybody to talk about it. He says, “There’s a clear reason for our unhappiness. It’s because of our mortal condition. Death is the most obvious fact of life; it slaps us in the face when we realize our own helplessness in overcoming it. Deep down, every single one of us are haunted by the notion that when we die, we experience the loss of everything in life.”
I don’t know if you, this was back I want to say in the 90s, it was one of the best-selling pieces of non-fiction. It was a little book called Tuesdays with Morrie. It’s a great little book, a lot of great life lessons, and Morrie is Morrie Schwartz. He was, as I recall, a professor of some kind, and he was dying, and one of his students was Mitch Albom, and Mitch is a very prominent author, written a number of books, some of you probably have read. Mitch would go visit with Morrie on every Tuesday to learn from his dying professor and one of the things Morrie said to Mitch, “Mitch, if you learn how to die you will then learn how to live.” If you learn how to die, you will learn how to live. In other words, what Morrie was telling him was come to terms with your mortality, and it will impact the happiness you experience while you live.
Of course, the question that would naturally follow that is, well, how do you learn how to die? How do you learn how to die? Well, I think it’s pretty simple. Put your life in the hands of the One who promises the hope of eternal life. You know, we hear these words, I’m going to share with you, but I’m not sure we often really carefully listen to them. Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the life, and then this. He who believes in Me will live even if he dies. Do you live with that assurance? Learn how to die and you’ll really learn how to live. There’s great wisdom there, guys.
Now, I want to spend the balance of my time on the heart of my messages. Not long. We’ll have you out of here well before 8:00. Several years ago, I was given a really interesting book that was very well researched. It was on the history of the pursuit of happiness, and it was written by Dr. Darrin McMahon who is a professor at Florida State. He says, basically, over the centuries, people have taken different approaches to try to find happiness in this life. And he says, and this is not really surprising, I don’t think, “The most natural approach people have taken, particularly if you live in a prosperous culture like we do, is to pursue the path of pleasure, and there’s a simple reason for this. Most people today believe that happiness is a feeling. It’s a good feeling and so, therefore, happiness is something that I feel, and, of course, what provides good feelings in life? Pleasure.” Now, there are other things, but pleasure is the most natural, main thing we look to. And therefore, I think so many modern people have come to assume that happiness is produced by filling my life with pleasure and this is why I believe so many have elevated the pursuit of pleasure to the point that it is the driving force in their lives, that it becomes their basic reason for living.
Now, I’ve been doing the work here at The Center now, I was kind of trying to figure out how long this morning, how long we’ve been having these Breakfasts, and it goes back to the year 2000, so this is the 19th year, and it’s been really I guess I could say, a real blessing to have all these men that I work with now. I can’t think of a finer group of guys, but, as Steve described what we do, we see a lot, we see a whole lot in men’s lives, and I don’t mean to say this arrogantly, I just say this kind of matter-of-factly, I don’t think there’s a problem in a man’s life we haven’t encountered. And I share that because this is one thing I do know, is that when pleasure becomes the source of your happiness, over time, we begin to see certain, this is what we notice, we begin to see a certain destructive tendency creep into men’s lives, destructive tendencies that generally lead to chaos. The first, is that we have this tendency to develop a lack of self-discipline and self-restraint and the reason, of course, is that anything hard and rigorous, on the front end, does not produce a good feeling, and so, what happens over time, it kind of produces a laziness in us, a sloppiness, because I don’t want to do hard things, which leads, really, right into the second tendency. And this is a biggie, particularly as it relates to relationships.
A second destructive tendency is that we lose the willingness to confront painful issues and problems. I mean, if you really think about it guys, well, let’s face it, confronting problems can be really uncomfortable for many and we’d rather not do it, I think. So, therefore, we so easily believe, you know, if I put this problem over here on the side and leave, it may be able to go away. Maybe I won’t have to deal with it, but let me just say this. The healthiest men that I know in life have courage because they run straight towards their problems and not away from them.
The third destructive tendency, pleasure-driven people, over time, naturally become self-absorbed. They become narcissistic because their thinking is, my happiness is more important than anyone or anything else in life and, of course, many of you know what I’m getting ready to share. If your pleasures go unchecked, there’s the problem of addiction, where the pleasure has a power over you that it was never meant to have.
Now, I ask this question. What do you think happens when a man is pursuing happiness through the pleasures of life and he has little self-discipline? He doesn’t deal with his problems and he’s totally self-absorbed. Guys, that is a recipe for misery not happiness. That’s his intent, to find happiness. It produces misery. And I believe this explains why so many people aren’t happy today in this prosperous culture that we live in. Their strategy to find happiness isn’t working, and they don’t know why, and they don’t know what to do about it, and maybe that’s true in your life, in some form or fashion today. Let me read these powerful words to you from a noted therapist. “The great mistake of modern man is to confuse pleasurable experience and feeling good with happiness. After 20 years of counseling I can tell you that the main thrust of too many lives is an overemphasis on feeling good instead of living wisely. In the process, a life of character is often abandoned for the pursuit of self gratification. The result is a life full of thrills and good feelings but eventually it is accompanied by a host of destructive consequences, yet people will continue to make that trade-off and then will complain bitterly about the price they have to pay and the unhappiness they experience in life.”
Now, let me go back real quickly to McMahon’s book. He says, on the historical pursuit of happiness, “There’s a second approach to happiness and it’s quite counter-intuitive.” He calls it’s the path of virtue. The path of virtue. It’s the age-old approach of tying happiness to higher things, to God, to virtue, to the right ordering of the soul. He says, “Happiness is considered a reward or even a byproduct of living well and living wisely.” You know, Thomas Jefferson, author of “The Declaration of Independence”, where you find those famous words guaranteeing the right of every citizen life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and when he was asked about happiness, listen to what Jefferson said. He said, “Happiness is the aim of life but virtue is the foundation of happiness.”
And that’s what J.R. Tolkien was trying to express in his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. He emphasized the need for people to have character and virtue in order to live in a complex and confusing world, which is what we live in. Listen as he says, “Happiness will not be found unless people know how to rise to the moral challenges around them.” Before I expound on this, well, I want to ask you to consider these two approaches that I think McMahon has talked about. Think about it. The path of pleasure as all about what I’m experiencing in life. All right? But the path of virtue is all about the man that you are becoming in this life. There’s a big difference in what you’re experiencing and what you’re becoming as a man, you see. I think we live in a time where so much focus is placed on fun and pleasure and little emphasis is placed on virtue, character, and the type of man that you are becoming. I read some fascinating words from Os Guinness. Listen to this. This is from his book, Time For Truth. He says, “Right up to the end of the 19th century, the most important course in an American student’s college career was moral philosophy, or what we today call ethics. The course was seen as the crowning unit in your senior year of college and it was usually taught by the college president himself. As President James Monroe said of such classes, listen to this quote. “The question to be asked at the end of an educational step is not what has the student learned, but what has the student become.” That is powerful.
You know, we so easily want our kids to go out and learn and have a good time, have we ever thoughts like, what kind of people are they becoming, what kind of men are we becoming as we go through this life. I taught a study recently on the storms of life, going through difficult times. I said, you know, this is the thing we miss. When you’re going through a trial, when you’re going through adversity, the one thing that we keep thinking is, and we’re concerned about, how is this going to turn out? Where God, on the other hand, is much more concerned with, how are you gonna turn out as you go through this storm.
I’ve shared this message over the years with my children, and usually, when we’re talking about pleasure, they start rolling their eyes, and they say, you know, I don’t think Dad wants us to have any fun in life, and so, I want to stop and give a plug for pleasure. You know, pleasure is a good thing. Pleasure is a gift of God. I’m not gonna go into this, but it’s a gift of God, but, if someone said to me, pleasure should add to the richness of life, but should not be the substance of life, that’s right on. It can bring great delight in your life but it can’t lead to lasting happiness, and the problem is if you look to pleasure as the source of your happiness and allow it to dominate your life, it will become a destructive force and lead to unhappiness in your life.
I want to take these final five minutes to share with you my main point, and I’m gonna read to you two verses from the book of Mark, chapter 8, verse 34 and 35. “And Jesus summoned the multitude with His disciples and said to them, if anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel shall save it.” You know, if you read the four Gospels, you hear Jesus say these things. They’re just, out of the blue, He’ll talk about denying yourself, dying to self, giving up your life, losing your life, and these phrases, clearly, if you think about it, are diametrically opposed to a culture that is raised on slogans like, ‘delight yourself’, ‘indulge yourself’, ‘grab all the gusto’, ‘if it feels good, do it’. It’s like they’re diametrically opposed, and for this reason, many people are suspicious of Jesus because all He seems to want to do is restrict your behavior. He’s like a thief that wants to steal your happiness from you, and I know that’s the case, because I once believed that. I mean, I really believed that. Of course, He kind of comes along and shatters that when He says in John 10:10, “The thief comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I came that you might have life, that you might have it abundantly.”
Early in my Christian life, I heard a verse that just thrilled me. I thought it was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Some of you may know it. It’s Romans 8:28. “But we know that God is causing all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” And I heard that, and I thought, man that is so cool. The one problem I had though, is the way I interpreted the word ‘good’, God is causing all things to work together for my good. My natural interpretation of that word ‘good’ had to do with the good life – my success, my prosperity, my comfort, all the things that make up the good life. Until somebody pointed out to me, you ought to read the next verse, and in verse 29, it talks about the importance, and what I think is the ultimate good in the sight of God, is that we be conformed to the image of His Son. You see, the Bible doesn’t use the word ‘virtue’. You don’t see that word. It has a more comprehensive word: Christ-likeness. Now, when that was first suggested to me, and maybe you’re thinking this now, like I did, that doesn’t have a lot of appeal to me because, you know, the way I looked at Jesus at the time, He was religious, He was too serious about everything, and He never had any fun. Why would I want to be like Him? But guys, over time, as I’ve studied His life, I’ve realized what Christ-likeness is all about, and, by the way, He wasn’t religious at all. The people that were religious hated Him, but I realized that Christ-likeness had to do with three things. There could be more than these three, but the three main things, your character, the wisdom you possess, and the ability to love and have deep substantive relationships, and the question that I have is, what man doesn’t want that for his life.
Let me put it like this. And I think this way because, I guess, I have two boys, well, one’s almost 22, the other is 19, but I ask you to take a hypothetical young man, and maybe we have a 25-year-old young man here today, but take a 25-year-old young man, and let’s just assume that this young man has strong character. It runs deep. He’s got great integrity, he’s kind, he’s unselfish, he’s humble, he’s courageous, but he also has great wisdom, he’s very wise, makes good choices and decisions. He fully understands choices have consequences. He’s very forward-thinking and finally, he has a great ability to love others. He’s got great relationships, people love to be with him, he’s very caring, he encourages others. Question. What kind of life will that young man experience do you think? You know, I contend he will have an unbelievably high quality of life and that he will find true happiness. In fact, when I share this with my two sons, I’ve said, guys, if you possess these three things, every woman in America will want to marry you because they’re looking for good men. I have so many men who have daughters and they complain they’re not a lot of good men out there. So, hear this, and I want you to listen to this carefully, because, I’ll wrap this up, the man that you become will ultimately determine what you experience in life. It will determine your level of happiness and yet, unfortunately, for most people, happiness becomes the goal of life, and they believe filling their lives with pleasurable experiences will produce that, but, as I pointed out when I started, it’s not working.
Today, for people, the research is there, there’s a real unhappiness in men’s lives because, hear this, God never intended for happiness to be the goal of life. It is a byproduct of becoming Christ-like and then living that out day to day as Darrin McMahon put it. It’s a reward for living well and living wisely, and yet, modern people are so blind to this.
Which leads to the final question, and you may be asking, how do you become Christ-like. Well, you need to know this. You can’t do it on your own strength. You can’t do it on your own effort. Now, you can change habits, exercise certain disciplines in your life, but you can’t change your heart, nor can you fill the emptiness of the human soul. Only Jesus can do that. He’s got to do a work in your life and He does that through a relationship with Him. Guys, the deeper we go into a relationship with Christ, the greater the transformation that will take place in your life. And the big question is, do you have that relationship? Do you have a real relationship with Him that’s making a difference in your life? Do you know Him personally? You know, that’s the ultimate mark of a Christian, to know God, to know Christ. In Matthew 7 in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something very, it’s very penetrating. He says, “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” and then He says, you know, on that day, on the Judgment Day, many people are going to argue with Me and say, but I did all these good things, and I did all these good things, and I did them in Your Name, and Jesus says, I will say to them, depart from Me, I never knew you. I never knew you.
Our objective here at The Center is to help men find that relationship, to help men know Christ and then help them grow in that relationship with Him, and we provide all these opportunities to do that and that’s what that card is for, and so, I invite you to take part in something that, in any of these offerings that we might assist you, but I hope you see that the foundation, the real foundation of happiness in this life is found in this relationship with Christ.
Let me close in prayer. Lord, we’re truly grateful to come together as a group of men. We thank You for the truth that You give us. We thank You that You came that we might have life and that we might have it abundantly, recognizing You are the source of true, all true joy and happiness, and I pray that we would recognize that, and therefore, desire to seek You as that source. Lord, I’m grateful for all these men, all the friendships that exist in this room. Thank you for this beautiful place, the wonderful meal we had. I pray Your blessing on each man as they leave here today. We pray all these things in Christ’s Name. Amen.