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Happiness: The Research, the Search


Happiness is now a serious realm of scientific research, stirring some fascinating, if unhappy findings.

Take the puzzling data that per-capita American incomes nearly doubled in the last 40 years, yet Americans were no happier for it. Why? Explanations vary. One theory says people quickly adjust to new conditions and never really come to enjoy the affluence. (See the March 22 New Yorker magazine issue summarizing some of the research.)

Another explanation: People constantly exaggerate or wrongly predict how happy they will be if certain supposedly happy events happen: winning the lottery or buying the shiny fancy car. People expect something new and dazzling to make them happy, and then it doesn't.

Churchgoers knew that already. Religious tradition gives a more realistic account of human impulses: people are restless and flawed, capable of greatness and also of self-delusion.

I don't find the word happiness much in the Bible. Scripture writers reach for other words, other feelings and experiences, to raise people out of discontent and isolation — words such as blessing, wisdom, delight, abundance, healing, wholeness, confidence, gratitude.

Biblical stories repeatedly offer this paradoxical advice: lose your life in order to save it. Find purpose and identity by embracing the divine story, which is bigger than the ego's impatient clamor. Augustine famously said, "My heart is restless until it finds its rest in God."

From this viewpoint, happiness research sounds a little off-track and insecure. It's as if we no longer know what happiness is, so we need to turn solemnly to science to tell us. The surge in research suggests happiness is a secret we can unlock, possess and retail, like a club membership or a pill or genetic information.

In former times, happiness was something you might achieve without talking much about it. The trick was to strike a balance between service, self-forgetfulness and standing up for yourself, your gifts and your needs.

Today's happiness search and research offer interesting insight into human behavior, but it is also a cry of dissatisfaction against the assumptions that were supposed to make us happy. The myth of materialism, for instance, isn't working out very well. It is leading to inequality and injustice, with undercurrents of anxiety, envy and irritability, not happiness.

All is not lost. Some politicians and sociologists now wonder if GDP (gross domestic product) is really the best way to measure the good life. Some are saying a better measure of happiness would be a "well-being" index that takes other things into consideration — friendships, neighborhood compassion, activism for the common good.

That's hopeful news, and I think churchgoers already know that.

--Columnist Ray Waddle, author of two books published by Upper Room Books, lives in Bethel, Conn.

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