“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
-Matthew 5:3-12 (NIV)
What makes you happy? If you’re like the respondents in a recent study, it’s not the same things that made your grandfather or great-grandfather happy.
In 1938, a British newspaper in Bolton, The Evening News, asked readers to respond to the question, "What is happiness?" Each reader was asked to order 10 factors according to their importance to his or her happiness. The top three answers, in order, were security, knowledge, and religion.
Last year, psychologist Sandie McHugh decided to follow up on the original study by asking today’s Bolton Evening News readers to respond to the same question. And, if the 489 people who responded were any indicator, happiness — or, at least, what we think will make us happy — looks a bit different than it did 76 years ago. Religion dropped from third to tenth place on the list. Security is the only answer from the original study that remained in the top 3. And the other two highest rated happiness factors this time were “leisure” and “good humor.” (The survey defined “good humor” as “more smiling and laughter for myself and those around me.”)
One other interesting difference: In the original study, a majority of respondents said they were happiest in their town. The 2014 redo of the study showed that 63% of respondents reported being happier away from Bolton.
If you can draw any conclusions from such a limited study, it might be that happiness is a little tougher to come by — or at least a little more fleeting — in our world. Seventy-six years ago, people found happiness in faith — assurance that a Higher Power was in charge of their lives. They found happiness in knowledge. And, if the study’s any indication, in our day we seem to have replaced those two things with — what? — leisure time and laughing more. The suggestion is that we’re saying to ourselves, “Who needs to learn, and who needs God? Give me some time off and tell some good jokes, and I’m happy.”
Fact is, happiness for most of us is probably more or less a matter of perception. If we feel like things are going pretty well for us, when someone asks we’ll say we’re happy. Happiness in our lexicon depends entirely on context, and we have trouble in our day imagining that happiness could be independent of circumstances. And yet, over and over the Bible holds out the tantalizing possibility of a happiness that can be experienced even in difficult, harsh, or deprived circumstances.
In maybe his best-known sermon, Jesus talks about this kind of happiness. “You’re blessed,” he says, even if you’re poor, even if your poverty is so complete it leaves you destitute of spirit.” He names as “blessed” — same word that in other places signifies “happy” — folks who are in mourning, who are bullied, who have a gnawing hunger and a burning thirst to see justice done. He claims that happiness is found in low-margin pursuits like purity of heart and peacemaking. And he makes the startling promise that we can even be happy when we’re persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused.
Jesus’ original hearers — you and me, as well — might be forgiven for wondering if Jesus is a little confused about the definition of happiness. After all, in our order of things, wealth makes us happier than poverty. Joy is synonymous with happiness, while mourning is its opposite. In our world, the meek get pushed around while the assertive inherit the earth. In the world we’ve created for ourselves, happiness never comes while we wait for justice. The way life as we know it works, the pure in heart won’t compromise enough to be happy, and those who try to make peace are usually the ones who experience the most conflict. And, really, Jesus? Happiness when we’re mistreated and misrepresented?
And where has that world we’ve created for ourselves gotten us? To a place where people can happily celebrate frivolities, dishonesty, and outright horror.
Jesus is simply saying to people who don’t have it all together — people like us — that we can find joy in the darnedest places if we just know where to look. He came proclaiming a kingdom in which the poor, the grieving, the sufferers of injustice and persecution, the bullied, can find happiness in the knowledge that God is not blind to their suffering. He promises that those with too much integrity to take shortcuts to happiness will experience the joy of God with their own eyes, and that those who imitate their Father in making peace will enjoy the happiness reserved for his true children. All this, he says is what the Kingdom of Heaven — God’s reign over the heavens and the earth — is about.
What makes us happy, in short, is God’s grace, love, and faithfulness. Whatever our circumstances, he can be trusted to bless us with his presence, love, and life.
In any era, that’s reason enough to call ourselves happy.