Obliged to Be Happy

I’m sure you’re familiar with the modern idea that happiness – or at least its pursuit, is a human right. In the UK, David Cameron recently announced plans to construct a ‘happiness index’,  measuring the country’s well-being. Even in Brazil, (promoted as ‘land of the party’), a bill enshrining the pursuit of happiness is expected to gain Senate approval.

It seems pretty obvious that to claim the ‘right’ to happiness is absurd. As Lewis argues, asserting the “right” to happiness is as ridiculous as the “right” to be a millionaire or a “right” to be six feet tall. One might also add the right to celebrity, good looks or even a job. After all, if being a millionaire or six feet tall are the only things that are going to make you happy, then you would have a right to be both of those things. Since being six feet tall is a question of genetics  and only a few of us become millionaires, either your “right” to happiness has been taken away or it didn’t exist to begin with.

I reckon that Lewis is right about ‘rights’, (I’m sure he’d be relieved to have my support on this). But whilst I say one thing, my heart tells me something different.  I deserve some happiness, or at least, a comfortable existence.  So, when hard times come, my inward response is one of shock and outrage. Why is this happening to me?  It’s not fair.  I’m owed better.

Of course the gospel reminds me that talk of such rights is nonsense.  Jesus offers us life to the full – but He also bids us come and die.  Once I allow my emotional barometer to direct my spiritual health, I’m in big trouble.

But the debate has widened, with  some arguing that what began as the ‘right’ to happiness has now become a demand. This month has seen the English publication of Pascal Bruckner’s book on the nature of happiness. Entitled, ‘Perpetual Euphoria: On The Duty To Be Happy’, Bruckner’s thesis is that happiness was a right which has now become an obligation. He links this to the social revolution of the 60s, an era of instant gratification with a new focus on the self.

After the 60s, there is no more distance between one’s happiness and oneself.  One becomes one’s own obstacle.  To overcome this obstacle a huge market opened: medicine to modify your mood, surgery to modify your body, and it also includes the spread of therapy and new or reformed religions.  So Jesus is no longer this transcendent God, but a life coach who helps you overcome addiction.

The problem is this – with no obstacle to happiness, it becomes a kind of moral obligation, a pressure that causes all kinds of mental health issues. Thus he characterises depression as ‘ the disease of a society that is looking desperately for happiness, which we cannot catch.  And so people collapse into themselves’.

Eating disorders are another expression of such unachievable expectations for personal satisfaction. They are lived parables of humanity turned in upon itself, attempting to exert control over at least one inviolable sphere – the body. In reality however, we don’t have control over  our bath water, let alone our futures.

Instead of a right or an obligation, Bruckner concludes  that, ‘happiness is more like a moment of grace’.  Scripture reminds us that life itself is a series of such moments, the gift of a gracious God, who alone gives us  joy and fulfilment.

6 thoughts on “Obliged to Be Happy

  1. Interesting post, Emma.

    I’ve often considered that depression is primarily a “disease of affluence”, as evidenced by the frequency with which it seems to manifest itself in our country among young,otherwise healthy, middle class individuals who have life so much easier than so much of the rest of the world.

    That’s not to point fingers at others, as I tend to have down times, too, which are compounded by the guilt of knowing that I have no obvious earthly reason to feel unahappy. Generally speaking, the more I try to fix it and attempt to measure progress by focusing on how I feel, the worse it gets.

  2. But ARGH it’s so utterly all-consuming, this desperate grasping for relief from discomfort! The strength with which God and I both wish I’d love HIM is clung to and manipulated constantly by my passionate desires for my own comfort, rest, and luxury … like my bones are clung to and manipulated by my flesh.

    “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thank God for Jesus Christ!”

  3. Hi Heather

    Yes, I guess my experience is that knowing other people are much worse off can add to the guilt and confusion that accompanies depression.Saying that, whilst the rise of antidepressants may be a phenomenon of affluence, there are arguments that depression itself is not.

    Andrew Solomon, in his book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,”argues that when clinical depression is the brain’s response to trauma or physical hardship, it’s more likely to affect those who are poorer, than the middle-class and rich. He comments that ‘checking for depression among the indigent, is like checking for emphysema among coal miners.’ However, as it’s the middle classes who have more resources, they are most closely associated with it. Depression is, he says ‘a thing that a certain class has the luxury of articulating and addressing’.

  4. Hi Nicko

    Yes it’s a battle – but often we clamp down on the passions which in themselves aren’t the problem. Instead Christ can redeem these, even through the process of the struggle

  5. Thank you for the information concerning the incidence of depression, Emma. In light of the fact that “the world” frequently measures success and ability to thrive by one’s station in life, I suppose it makes sense that those who are poorer would be more likely to experience it, yet not be on record anywhere.

    I think my issue with guilt stems primarily from the idea that Christians have a hope that should not be affected by circumstances…therefore, Christians (regardless of external environment) have no excuse for feeling depressed. Maybe that’s not even an accurate assumption.

  6. Hi Heather
    Thanks for this. You’re right that we have a hope that isn’t affected by circumstances – but Scripture speaks powerfully to the depressed Christian, whether Elijah after Carmel or Jeremiah. Over and over again we are enjoined to keep hoping, to keep going, to keep trusting – precisely because the Lord knows that we are weak and that we will struggle, whether with guilt or depression. We have been declared righteous and forgiven, but until the New Creation our flesh will keep telling us otherwise. In the Lord’s grace however, what might cause us to sin can instead drive us closer to Him and His strength for our weakness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *