WSJ: ‘Is Happiness Overrated?’ Why, Yes

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ~ The U.S. Declaration of Independence

From the Pew Research Center via WSJ

While skimming my Twitter feed last week, I came across an intriguing tweet by Christian author Gary Thomas: “‘Is Happiness Overrated?’ I think this WSJ article supports the premise in Sacred Marriage.”


Following the link, I found myself looking at the recent Wall Street Journal article “Is Happiness Overrated” by Shirley S. Wang.

Wang reports that researchers have found that pursuing happiness as defined by pop culture does not have the health benefits once thought:

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.” … Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness. … In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.

In fact, having eudaimonic well-being may make the difference between life and death for some:

Over a seven-year period, those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared with those reporting greater purpose in life, according to an analysis published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. The study involved 950 individuals with a mean age of about 80 at the start of the study. … In a separate analysis of the same group of subjects, researchers have found those with greater purpose in life were less likely to be impaired in carrying out living and mobility functions, like housekeeping, managing money and walking up or down stairs. And over a five-year period they were significantly less likely to die—by some 57%— than those with low purpose in life.

It’s not that our founding father’s didn’t know what they were talking about when they drafted the Declaration of Independence. Over the centuries, the definition of happiness has changed. Wang explains part of the confusion:

“Eudaimonia” is a Greek word associated with Aristotle and often mistranslated as “happiness”—which has contributed to misunderstandings about what happiness is. Some experts say Aristotle meant “well-being” when he wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia by fulfilling their potential.

The U.S. founders would have understood happiness in a way much more closely connected with Aristotle’s “well-being” than the hedonic version touted in today’s culture. Wang writes:

For instance, symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations.

It’s not that hedonic happiness leads to health problems. Rather, our culture’s obsession with it has led us away from that which truly fulfills.

The two types of well-being aren’t necessarily at odds, and there is overlap. Striving to live a meaningful life or to do good work should bring about feelings of happiness, of course. But people who primarily seek extrinsic rewards, such as money or status, often aren’t as happy, says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.

So should we all toss our toys and head to the mission field to gain longer lives? Not necessarily. From a Christian perspective, it’s not surprising to see that legalism doesn’t pay. Nor does simply pursuing happiness via good works.

Simply engaging in activities that are likely to promote eudaimonic well-being, such as helping others, doesn’t seem to yield a psychological benefit if people feel pressured to do them, according to a study Dr. Ryan and a colleague published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “When people say, ‘In the long-run, this will get me some reward,’ that person doesn’t get as much benefit,” he says.

As a Christian, these finding aren’t surprising. Serving ourselves hurts us, and that’s why Jesus offers a better way. I am reminded of the story of the rich young ruler.

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22 ESV)

In light of the research, Jesus’ answer to the man is interesting. After addressing basic moral behavior, Jesus advises the man to give up his material wealth and follow Him. Jesus points the man away from hedonic goods and offers him purpose. Sadly, the man doesn’t take His advice.

The gospel calls people to a truly healthy lifestyle. Jesus tells people to lay down their lives, pick up their crosses, and follow Him. He offers purpose and a life filled with meaningful activity. And he commands us to take our eyes off ourselves and look outward, loving God and loving others.

Research indicates that walking in Jesus’ steps leads to life.

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