Happiness, Thermometers, and Lies, Lies, Lies

There is a regulation in Toronto that apartment buildings must be kept at 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit for the metric impaired). It is honestly quite amazing just how successful they are at maintaining this temperature in our building. Check the thermometer in the morning: 68 degrees. Check the thermometer before bed: 68 degrees. Check the thermometer at lunch: 68 degrees. It never changes.

And yet, there are days when I am sitting there with three layers: t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, and pullover, and I am still freezing to death and considering that maybe I need to grab yet another layer. Maybe a parka would fix things. Did the heater bust? Check the thermometer: 68 degrees. Well, what the blurgh?!

I learned in the process of teaching physics that the human body is an incredibly bad thermometer. In fact, the human body has no capacity whatsoever to sense temperature, at least from a conscious, neurological perspective. When you feel that it’s hot, you’re not detecting the temperature; you’re actually detecting the movement of heat energy through your skin. When you feel cold, there’s a lot of heat energy moving out through your skin. When warm, there’s a small amount moving out. When it’s unbearably hot, you’re actually detecting heat energy moving into the body.

This little science lesson to say: the thermometer can be a liar, liar, pants on fire. Or at least, it can feel that way. Temperature is only one factor of how heat energy moves in or out of the body, so a thermometer might not actually tell you what you think it’s telling you.

Which just ties right back to what I was pondering last week. Happiness can kind of be like a thermometer for the spiritual life. It can be a sort of indicator of how we’re doing, but the object isn’t to make the thermometer read some ideal mark just like the object isn’t to make ourselves happy. It’s just a general indicator. It could be giving out information that doesn’t reflect what we think.

In fact, it could be telling us something way off the mark. You could very well feel like it’s a big, fat liar.

Just like the thermometer might be indicating that it’s “warm” while we’re freezing our patooties off, our being happy might be indicating that we’re just fine while, really, we’re pretty messed up. What makes us happy is far from the only ingredient for the spiritual life just like temperature isn’t the only ingredient for how warm or cold we’re feeling.

Happiness is an indicator, but it’s far from foolproof. In our consumer-minded, happiness-obsessed culture (at last check, a book search on Amazon for anything with “happiness” in the title brought up 16,323 results! Even Christian Book Distributors carries 251 such titles.), it can be easy to get sidetracked and start trying to cultivate happiness rather than sanctification and holiness (Lord knows I do…). And as I mentioned before, it’s not completely wrong. Scripture talks about joy and happiness, but they’re more rewards than goals. Like Jesus said, seek the Kingdom first. Doesn’t mean you give up on happiness. It just needs to be secondary.

In the end, maybe I’m writing this more for myself than for anybody else. Like I said, I know I end up getting manipulated a little bit by the culture into chasing happiness rather than God or virtue or the Kingdom. I don’t want to stop (what? Like chasing misery is a positive?), but a reminder of happiness’ connecting with how God and our lives actually work is probably a good one now and then.


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