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The Pursuit Of Happiness, Part 1: Why Is It So Elusive?

I chose to do this series because I think it’s such a significant topic. In fact, I’ve shared with several people, uh, this statement and had some interesting conversations, but I truly believe what I’m getting ready to tell you, that most adult Americans, I believe, experience great unhappiness in life. And, a lot of them experience depression and it’s not something that people want to admit, particularly men, because, you know, we’re, we’re supposed to be up, we’re supposed to be on top of things, we’re supposed to be competent, together, and to acknowledge our unhappiness is something that we’d rather not do. So, it’s a fascinating topic and I found that it really is resonating with so many people that I’ve been sharing it with. And I want to start by talking about how I came up with this topic. It’s called, “The Pursuit of Happiness, Why Is It So Elusive?” And it resulted from a series of things that really were brought to my attention. Back in February of this year, I wrote a blog titled, “The Never-Ending Pursuit of Happiness”, and I quoted from a New York Times article on a psychology course that is currently being offered at Yale. It’s a brand new course that’s currently being offered at Yale, and it’s become the most popular course ever offered at that institution. Over a quarter of the student body is enrolled in it, and I’m not sure how they doing that. I’m sure they’re large classes and it’s probably taught several different times, and the course is on how students can lead a happier, more satisfying life and they’re flocking to it. And the professor teaching it is a woman by the name of Laurie Santos. It’s a psychology course, and she made this observation. She says, “There is a serious mental health crisis among our students.”

And then, ironically, I was sent an article last month, a second article, which was an interview that someone did of Dr. Santos and this is what she said in this interview. She says, “College students are much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, and much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been.” She says, “I think we really have a crisis at large at colleges in how students are doing in terms of self-care and mental health.” Then she adds, “But sadly, I don’t think it’s a problem just among our college students.” In other words, she thinks this is pervasive among adults in our country.

Now, a couple of weeks ago, Jay Lloyd and I were asked to speak at a forum. Jay, if you don’t know, Jay works here at The Center. He is our resident counselor and I feel like he’s one of the best counselors in Birmingham. But he and I were asked to tag team at this Forum that’s sponsored by four mayors of the cities of Vestavia, Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Hoover. And they’re doing four of these a year, once a quarter, and they asked Jay, Mayor Welsh of Mountain Brooke asked Jay and I to speak at the one that was held a couple of weeks ago. And the topic is on the addiction crisis, particularly among our young people. And I spoke on how drug addiction is a symptom of a much deeper problem. And I started by reading from a book called Straw Dogs by a guy by the name of John Gray. It’s a secular book. It’s nothing Christian about it. And, in this article it 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 must be found in this lifetime and this world in the now because that’s all there is from a secular point of view. To live with any hope, then,” he says, “secular people must believe that we can eliminate most sources of unhappiness for the majority of people, but,” he says, “but you know what? That’s impossible.” He says, “The causes of suffering are infinitely complex and impossible to eliminate.” And then, in a startling admission, Gray argues that this very point that religious cultures in the past were able by the nature of their beliefs to be far more realistic about life and how common human misery is, particularly because of the understanding of the depravity of man. And Gray says, “Modern societies like ours cannot admit the normal unhappiness of life.”

Now, in the book that I wrote on humility, there’s a chapter called “The Modern Age of Arrogance” and from it, I quote the sociologist, Donna Freitas from her wonderful book, The Happiness Effect, How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect At Any Cost. And she did most of her research through interviewing 200 college students at 13 different universities. And she concluded that all these students are driven, all of them, all 200 of them, are driven to appear to be perfectly happy all the time. She says, “They all have a compulsion to present themselves as successful people who are totally happy.” She says, “It’s unthinkable for them to appear to be anything else.” She says, “They cannot be transparent and vulnerable with anyone since they cannot discuss their inadequacies, struggles and fears because if they did, they would not be a person who is happy and who has their act together. People today are more concerned with appearing to be happy than actually being happy because in the lives of these students, appearance is everything.” But I think that’s also true with adults. Freitas states that, “These young adults are consistently comparing themselves on social media. Pride begins when you compare yourself with others.” Freitas says, “It becomes a 24/7 sport with pictures, profiles, and status updates, displaying legions of happy people, having amazing experiences alongside beautiful girlfriends, and handsome boyfriends. Unfortunately, they are not truly happy and end up suffering alone in isolation. For rarely would one ever post the truth and reveal that they are sad or depressed.”

Now, the final piece that I want to read to you, and I know if you’re familiar with it, you’ve heard about it over the last few weeks, and that’s the celebrity suicides that have been highly publicized of Kate Spade, the famous fashion designer, and Anthony Bourdain, that’s kind of the celebrity chef, and both of them took their lives. And I think what I’ve noticed in the media, the media is just mystified that these very famous, very wealthy celebrities would both take their lives like within a week of each other. And from an article in The New York Times, I thought this insight was terrific. It was really very powerful. The writer, the journalist who, I can’t remember his name, says, “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 invisible pain, parts unknown. Nobody knew about. That was true of Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.” He goes on to say, “Their deaths, listen to this, “their deaths certainly reflect the faultiness of our assumptions, the deceptiveness of appearances, and the complexities of the human soul.” And so, I want to talk for a few minutes about happiness and before we do that, I want to make a comment, particularly as it relates to the Biblical view of happiness. You see, I used to believe that happiness was more of a modern term, and it was not very Biblical. I mean, I think of Biblical words like contentment, and joy, and peace, and satisfaction, which are all great words, but then I read this really unusual, and very well written book, called Happiness by Randy Alcorn. And he discusses this at length, and what I found to be interesting, what I’ve done with other groups before proceeding at this point, I’ve stopped and asked the question, if I gave you an index card and asked you to write two or three sentences on, what is your definition of happiness, what would you write? And I’ve gotten a bunch of empty stares. It’s kind of like, I have no idea. I mean, I think, truly, we do have a hard time getting our arms around, and defining what happiness is. Now, what I’ve come to learn and I’ve started paying close attention to is that the word happiness, or happy, or happiness is used in the Bible. It’s used in different verses depending on the translation. For instance, Psalm 68:3 says, “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God. May they be happy and joyful.” And that word happy is the Hebrew word, “sis”, s-i-s, which means to be delighted, exalted, be glad or have gladness in your life and to rejoice.

Now, in Isaiah 52:7, we hear the word happy or happiness used again. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace, and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation and says to Zion, your God reigns.” But it says, brings good news of happiness. John Piper, who I think is one of the great Bible scholars in our country today, says this. He says, “The Bible is indiscriminate in its use of the language of happiness, and joy, and contentment, and satisfaction.” In other word, they are kind of used indiscriminately, and if you go to the top dictionaries and look up the word “joy”, the definition of joy in Webster’s is a feeling of great happiness. The dictionary of the Bible defines joy as “a quality or attitude of delight and happiness.” And what Alcorn says, bottom line, and he does a good job of really demonstrating that the Scripture seems to use joy and happiness interchangeably, along with the words gladness, and to delight in, and to rejoice. Think about what Augustine said. “Is not a happy life the thing that all desires, and is there anyone who altogether desires it not?”

Now, kind of going back to where we started. Why are modern people so unhappy? You know, some would say, well, they’re looking for it in all the wrong places. Some would say they don’t really know the source of joy. Think about it from this perspective. Every single one of us in this room enters this world, and as we start to grow up, we get, we began to try and make sense out of life, and we try and understand how life works with the ultimate goal of finding the path that leads to my happiness and ultimate well-being. Everybody seems to be on that path as they grow up. And so we developed certain ideas about what we think will lead to our own ultimate good, and then these sets of ideas govern our thinking and tells us what the world is like, and how we should live in it. And I think I would go on and make this comment. I think everybody, if you ask them, regardless of how unhappy they might be, if you said to them, do you have any idea how you might find happiness? They probably would say, yeah, if I had this, or I could do this, or I had, you know, whatever. Dallas Willard says, something very powerful about all this as far as our ideas. He says that, “Our ideas are the assumptions we have about reality. They are the way we think about and interpret life. They are so pervasive and essential to how we think about and approach life, that we often do not even know that they’re there or understand when and how they’re at work.” He says, “Therefore, it is extremely difficult for most people to recognize which ideas are governing their lives at any given time.” He goes on to say, “Why do people find their lives in chaos and their souls running amok?” He says, “One of the primary reasons is that they are blinded by false ideas, distorted images, and misinformation, so that their souls cannot find its way into a life of consistent truth and a harmonious pursuit of what is good. They become locked in a self-destructive struggle with themselves and with all that is around them, and the most prominent features in their lives are unfulfilled desires and poisoned relationships.” And then he says, “So often when I counsel people whose lives are in chaos,” he says that he’s stunned by the reasons people give for clinging to their false beliefs. Now, I think Willard is spot on there, I really do. I don’t know if you’re aware of how the University of Michigan is kind of, they have this expertise in all of these consumer surveys that they do, all the consumer surveys that you hear about on the news, and they, in one of their surveys, they asked people, what do you think is the one thing, if we could add this to your life, would make you happier, and you can imagine what that one thing almost everybody answered, more money. If I had more money, I would be happier. Now, if you think about it, it’s more than money. It’s what you believe money can buy you. I mean, think about it, Spade and Bourdain were incredibly wealthy, and yet obviously, they had not found the happiness that you think that their fame and wealth would buy. And so, what I’ve concluded is this, guys, that, I think, for most people, particularly this is historically, this is true in modern, I mean, in prosperous civilizations, that people come to believe that happiness is a feeling. It’s something that I feel. And of course, what produces good feelings in life, probably more than anything else, would be pleasure. And so, think about that, money, think about all the pleasure that money can buy, and therefore, many people, I think, have come to assume that happiness is produced by filling my life with pleasure. And this is why I think so many modern people have elevated the pursuit of pleasure into a philosophy of life.

Now, The Center For Executive Leadership’s been here going on 18 years, maybe 19. I lose track, lose count. And in this period of time, one of the things that we’ve noticed is that when pleasure becomes the source of happiness in your life, it breeds three destructive tendencies, and they just kind of creep into your life. And over time, if they go unchecked, they can be unbelievably destructive.

Let me just share those with you real briefly. Those three. When you believe that pleasure is the source of happiness, over time, you will develop a lack of self-discipline and self -restraint in your life. And the reason is, because anything that’s hard and rigorous, particularly on the front end, doesn’t produce good feelings. And we’re into a good feelings, but we have to remember, the heart of virtue and character, is the ability to restrain your desires. So, you see, there’s a conflict between being a person of great character in your pursuit of happiness, if pleasure is the source of happiness. There’s a conflict there. You see that? Second, a second tendency. We develop the tendency to not confront painful issues and problems, because confronting things is hard. Confronting problems is hard. I’m seeing this in a lot of marriages. They know, the couple know, their marriage is in trouble, but what I’m finding, and interestingly, this, I’m seeing this in a lot of wives and not husbands, is they realize, we need counseling, and they refused to do it. One of the partners refuses to do it because, you know what? Counseling is going to be hard. It’s going to be painful, because we’re gonna have to confront our stuff. And so, I think it’s so much easier to believe if I leave my problems alone, maybe they’ll go away, and they never do.

Now, this is what I’ve learned, and, as we get into the series, the latter part of the series, I think you’re going to see that a key to experiencing happiness in life is to be a healthy person, and I share that because, guys, healthy people run straight toward their problems. They confront them and they deal with them, and so, that’s the second tendency, to avoid and not confront your problems, or difficult issues. And finally, and this is not surprising, pleasure-driven people naturally become self-absorbed. They become what modern culture calls narcissistic, and the reason is, my happiness is more important than anyone or anything else in life. And so, let me ask you, think about this. What do you think happens to a person who’s on this search for happiness, but they end up with no discipline, no self-restraint in their lives, they don’t confront their problems, and they’re totally self absorbed. You know what the end result is? Misery, not happiness, misery, and guys, I believe this is one of the reasons so many Americans are unhappy today.

Listen to this. These are some powerful words by a noted therapist that really confirms everything that I just shared. She says, “The great mistake of modern man is to confuse pleasurable experience and feeling good with happiness, and 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’s accompanied by a host of destructive consequences, and yet, people, modern people will continue to make that trade-off and then will complain bitterly about the price they have to pay.”

So, the question is, where is happiness found in this life? Over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore this, and I think what you’re going to find is that the answer is very obvious, and I’m going to give you the answer and then we’re going to really kind of walk through this over the next few weeks.

Happiness is a byproduct of living in the center of God’s will. You see, God never intended for it to be the object of life. It’s a byproduct of living our lives in the center of God’s will. Now, when we talk about God’s will, so much of God’s will is obvious to us. For instance, it’s God’s will that you be faithful to your wife. It’s God’s will that you’re honest and you have integrity in your business dealings. It’s God’s will that you be kind. It’s God’s will that you forgive people when they wrong you. Now, I don’t know about you, but for the longest time, the thought of being in the center of God’s will seemed too restrictive, but you have to ask yourself, what in God’s will do you really not want for your life? So, this idea that God’s will is restrictive is a false idea, and false ideas not only are bad, but they’re destructive. You see the phrase, “the will of God” comes from the Greek word, thelema. It means, “God’s desired or preferred will for us”. It also means “His best offer to us that can be accepted or rejected”. God’s will points to His deliberate design for us. As we follow it, we increasingly come to sense that we’re becoming who we were designed to be. You see, when we seek to be in the will of God, we will find we are living in harmony with our design. We’ll be living the life that we were meant to live. Ya’ll have heard me use this illustration over and over.

God’s Word, God’s instruction, God’s will for our lives. There’s not a bunch of rules that you follow. It’s an owner’s manual, and when you follow the owner’s manual, your life will flourish because the owner’s manual fits your design.

Now, I do want to, before I close, make a comment about pleasure, because I’ve shared this message over the years with my kids, and usually, when I’m about two-thirds the way through it, they roll their eyes and say, ah, pleasure must be bad. Dad’s talking bad about it. It’s not good for you. You know, don’t do anything that’s fun. And I have to stop and explain that pleasure is a gift of God. He gave it to us for our delight and, as someone put it, I thought this was very powerful, is that “pleasure should add to the richness of life, but not to the substance of it.” In other words, pleasure should add great things to our lives, great delight to our lives, but it’s never meant to be the source of happiness and satisfaction. Listen to what Paul says about all that we’ve been given. He says, “For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.” So, pleasure was created by God, and so it’s good, but it’s to be enjoyed within the parameters of God’s will.

Listen to what C.S. Lewis said about it. He put it so well. He said, “All pleasure and happiness is, in its own nature, good. And God wishes us to enjoy it. He does not, however, wish us to enjoy it without relation to Him, still less to prefer it to Him.” Lewis keeps emphasizing a basic principle of the spiritual life. “When one’s relationship to God is given first place, everything else, including our earthly loves and pleasures,” listen to this, “increases, not decreases. When I’ve learned to love God more than my earthly desires and pleasures, then I’ll enjoy my earthly desires better than I do now. Insofar as I learned to love my earthly pleasures at the expense of God, I shall be moving towards that state in which I shall not enjoy earthly pleasures. When first things are put first, secondary things are not suppressed, they increase.” They’re not suppressed, they increase.

And I’m going to close with this one final thought, which will kind of lead us into the balance of the lessons that we’ll be doing. There was a study performed by Duke University on what factors, what factors impact our level of happiness. And I share this because that’s really kind of what we’ll be looking at in all future sessions. What are the factors in life that lead to happiness? And what Duke came up with, basically, if you read the factors that they identified, every one of these factors conforms to Biblical wisdom and Biblical principles, though the researchers at Duke never realized. They said, this is what it is, never realizing that for thousands of years, these factors had been known. Most people just don’t want to pay attention to them.

Now, we will pick up on this in our next session. Let me close in prayer. Father, thank You for what You teach us about life and about happiness, and that You ultimately desire the very best for each one of us, and I pray through this series that we will see and understand what Your will is for our lives, realizing that happiness is a byproduct of being in the center of Your will. We thank You and pray all of this in Christ’s Name. Amen.

Fears Men Struggle With

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