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The limits of human happiness: The danger of trying to find our identity in our feelings

happy feeling
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In a recent interview, pop superstar Adele told Oprah that the reason she divorced her husband and created a broken home for her then 6-year-old son was because “she realized she was ‘ignoring’ her own happiness.” Similarly, Honor Jones, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote recently that, even though she “loved [her] husband,” who she had three young children with, she was breaking her family up because she “felt that [her husband] was standing between [her] and the world.”

This 50-year-old-and-counting trend of “no-fault” divorce, in which a husband or a wife chooses to split from their spouse because of a feeling rather than a concrete transgression like abuse or adultery, is part of a larger phenomenon that has been happening in Western society for decades now: the ascendence of feelings and emotions as the definitive barometer of who a person is.

Arguably, we are seeing this trend more explicitly in our current American moment than we ever have before with the advent of transgenderism — the idea that one can change their “gender” because of being unhappy with one’s biological sex. Just as with no-fault divorce, the choice to become transgender has proven to have very real negative consequences that not only affect the health of the individual choosing to identify as transgender (through harmful hormone therapy and surgeries that do not resolve the person’s unhappiness) but also society (through classroom indoctrination, bathroom privacy violations, and the assault on women’s sports, among other harms).

In our “live your own truth” society, consuming pornography, participating in premarital sex, and committing adultery are acts that cannot be judged by others if they feel right to the individual in the moment, despite the trail of brokenness and victimization left in their wake. Furthermore, we are seeing highly-charged feelings about America being a “racist” and “white supremacist” country driving a nationwide movement to establish intensely divisive “Critical Race Theory” policies in schools and places of work, despite clear, commonsense evidence that “systemic” racism does not exist in America.

The right to act on strongly-held feelings — no matter how it may affect others — has become an idol in our culture, and the damage that this causes is plain to see. While feelings and emotions are an important part of being human, they do not ultimately define us, and we must carefully discern whether or not to act on them. If we want to flourish as a society, it is critical that we have a grounded, biblical perspective on our emotions, which continually shift from day to day like the changing winds.

The pursuit of happiness

In this country, we can trace the privileging of feelings back to our founding. Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement in the Declaration of Independence that among our “inalienable rights” bestowed on us by our Creator is “the pursuit of happiness,” the concept of “happiness” has held a prominent place in the American heart.

But what is happiness? At best, what we associate with or describe as happiness is often a fleeting feeling of contentment or pleasure. According to Thomas Aquinas, this “imperfect happiness” is the only form of happiness that can be obtained on earth. For most of us, even when we are doing something we thoroughly enjoy for an extended period of time, a genuine, all-encompassing feeling of happiness is usually short-lived. If one were to continually strive for one’s own version of happiness at every turn, it’s easy to see the disaster that would unfold — someone acting on every whim and urge regardless of the consequence or the effect on others.

Yet, there is no denying that happiness in its essence is a good thing and is wonderful to experience. Even so, what’s interesting about happiness is that we tend to experience it when we don’t necessarily expect to. It could be when we are simply on a walk, and the beauty of nature strikes us in a way that we weren’t anticipating. Or it could be in a more predictable context, like when we are engaging in an activity that we find pleasure in such as reading a good book or playing guitar.

What’s fascinating, though, is that even when we do something in order to be happy, there is no guarantee that we will feel happy. This speaks to the ephemeral nature of happiness — it is a gift that is given to us from above. When we grasp for it, it is often just out of our reach. Perhaps this is what Jefferson meant when he wrote of the “pursuit” of happiness — we seek it because of how good it makes us feel, but we don’t always find it.

When we look at Scripture, we find that happiness or its synonym joy is almost always connected with seeking God and the virtues. For example, Psalm 146:5 proclaims: “Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.” Proverbs 3:13 declares: “Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding.” In Psalm 92:4, the psalmist writes, “You, O Lord, have made me happy by your work. I will sing for joy because of what you have done.” In another passage, King David actually commands happiness, writing, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11). 

These verses tell us something about what should be of ultimate importance to our earthly life and Who we should ultimately seek.

The limited offerings of the world

A natural question to ask here is, why? Why should we seek after a God we cannot see? A large part of the answer lies in the nature of the world. At the end of the day, as Bishop Robert Barron has so eloquently written and spoken about, “nothing in this world finally satisfies the deepest longings of our heart.” When we think of our most cherished and memorable experiences and feelings in our lives — the most delicious meal, the most mind-bendingly electrifying movie, the most beautiful mountain view, the most exhilarating athletic achievement, the most stimulating conversation — what do they all have in common? They all inevitably end, fading into the mists of the past, and we are plunged headlong into the next moment or the next day, which usually isn’t nearly as memorable. Even our loved ones will eventually die, ending our most cherished relationships.

So what can we learn from this universal (and somber) certainty?

One thing we can learn is a fundamental truth about being human: We all have a deep desire for lasting happiness which points to something beyond anything this world can offer. Built into every human heart is an insatiable hunger for ultimate love, ultimate goodness, ultimate beauty, ultimate truth. As wonderful as our best moments on earth are, they only leave us wanting more. But why? Why would God create us this way? C.S. Lewis, in his great work The Problem of Pain, gives a perceptive, poetic answer to this confounding question:

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

Knowing that ultimate fulfillment can never come on earth, our hunger for it nevertheless drives us to continually seek it. In this pursuit of happiness, it is often our deeply felt emotions and feelings that drive our actions. But as we have seen, unless these feelings are directed toward good things that ultimately come from God, we will not only be chronically unhappy, but we will also end up falling into wrongdoing, hurting ourselves and those around us.

The fulfillment of all desire

Our Heavenly Father knows our needs and the deepest longings of our hearts (see Matthew 6:25-33), but He also gives us the freedom to choose to follow those longings in the way we choose to do so. This is why we must remain anchored in God’s Word and follow His laws laid out for us in Scripture so that our emotions and our deepest longings will naturally fall in line with the things of God — those things that are by nature true, good, and beautiful.

This is the wonderful reality about the unique gifts and talents that we are all blessed with: everyone can express their ultimate longing for God in their own way by pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty through music, athletics, writing, building houses, repairing cars, homemaking, or any of the multitude of good things that fills the earth. God delights in giving His children good gifts. As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). At the same time, our natures tell us that ultimate fulfillment won’t come from these finite gifts, for as Christ said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

When we live our lives without God, however, the results are plain to see. We end up straining and grasping for fulfillment moment by moment, without a fixture of truth to guide our hearts. We attempt to “live our truth” by following whatever earthly thing we think will make us happy, eternally confounded by its finiteness.

May we instead live in the promise of the “food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27), forever consoled and strengthened by the hope and truth of the One who has set all people free (John 8:32), who will eternally fulfill every desire in our true home — the world to come.


Originally published on the Family Research Council. 

Dan Hart is the Managing Editor for Publications at Family Research Council. His writing has appeared in such outlets as National Review, The Federalist, First Things, The Stream, The Christian Post, the National Catholic Register, and others. Before joining FRC, he served with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he worked to promote vocations to the clergy and religious life.

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