Happiness and Thermometers

The chief end of man, the average Joe on the street might say these days, is to enjoy himself fully. Happiness has sort of become the principal goal. Or as Jim Davis once said, “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can get.”

As Christians, I think, we can get caught in this weird situation where we know that’s wrong, but it’s hard to separate from what the culture’s determined is life’s telos. For that matter, it gets even harder when happiness isn’t something that we seem to be told to eschew. After all, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Ps. 16:11, NASB)

Image Copyright Ben W.

Image Copyright Ben W.

If I may digress, it’s fairly cold where we are right now, and we’re not infrequently checking the temperature. I wondered if perhaps the thermometer might not be a curious, little example of how happiness actually fits into the spiritual life in a weird way.

I wonder if happiness is like the thermometer reading. It can help to tell us how things feel, but the goal is not to get the thermometer to hit the right mark. If that were really the case, we could just toss it in the freezer if it were too high or stick it in boiling water if it were too low. Voila! The reading is “right” in no time flat.

Of course, we still wouldn’t be feeling any better. We’d just be fooling ourselves.

And I wonder if that’s a little bit like what happiness can be for the spiritual life. Happiness can be a bit of a thermometer sometimes. It can give us some suggestion of how things might be going. It can be an indicator of sorts. But if we aim to change the indicator rather than the situation, if we seek happiness rather than God, we’re fooling ourselves. We might get what we think we want, but it won’t actually change anything, and the indicator will eventually just slide right back to where it was before.

I guess I’m not saying much more than C. S. Lewis said. “Aim at Heaven, and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth, and you will get neither.” Maybe I’m just repackaging it in a new metaphor.

Of course, it also occurs to me, through experience I might add, that our thermometers are not always the greatest at telling us what we think anyway. They can fool us, or perhaps better, allow us to fool ourselves. But I’ll blog that for another day.


One response

  1. I have – in the course of 42 years – stupidly, repeatedly chased happiness like a butterfly.
    Not unlike chasing butterflies, it is possible to flail about and be in the right place at the right time with the right circumstance and come away with one or two small moments of pleasure…
    But like catching a butterfly, it’s silly in a way…
    You can’t “play” with a butterfly.
    You can’t do anything with them at all except accept them and observe.
    Happiness, like butterflies, remains fragile… always needing the right circumstance or right moment to bring about it’s fulfillment and remain alive – the right temperature as you alluded. (As an aside, it’s strange to me how many people don’t believe in “Luck” but do actually believe in “Happy” when essentially, they are the same concept – Right place, right time, right circumstance… blah blah blah)
    I think I deny myself and struggle most often with Joy – and recognizing its constant presence – Not unlike an anchor holding a storm-tossed boat in an island harbor.
    If I allow myself contentment in knowing the constancy in Joy, I’m able to experience the pleasure (happiness) and the fulfillment the Psalmist speaks of – descending gently upon me like a butterfly looking for a quiet place to land. And much to my surprise I often find, it was there all along – hidden beneath my desires for things rooted squarely in my worldly earth-bound view finder…
    I need a nap now. 😉
    Thanks for the kick-start this morning in the direction of Joy.

    February 14, 2013 at 10:52 am

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