The Pursuit of a Behavioral By-product

It's the unfortunate catch-22 of our quest for happiness: we all want it, but it was never designed to be a goal.

“I just want to be happy.”

Have you ever thought that, said that, or heard someone else say it?

In some ways we all just want to be happy—to have a jump in our stride, a smile on our face, a warm feeling in the chest. It's part of what it means to be American. The pursuit of happiness is even listed as an “inalienable right” in the Declaration of Independence, for crying out loud. We think everyone has a right to seek happiness. We all want to be happy.

And yet so few of us are. We’re often depressed, anxious, angry, tired, busy—but we don’t seem to be happy. When’s the last time you heard someone respond to the question “How are you?” by smiling and saying, “Quite happy, thanks!” It almost seems offensive.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who is on a happiness quest, what I’m about to say might bother you: When you aim at happiness, you will miss it—every time.

Why?

Because happiness can never be the goal. It is always a by-product.

When you make personal happiness a target to shoot for, you will always miss it.

The feelings of personal happiness you’re after—the actual, physiological feelings—come from a variety of neurotransmitters in your brain: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Some of them, such as dopamine, provide quick happiness “hits” that we get from accomplishing a goal. Sort of like a quick reward system. It comes from different things such as getting “likes” on social media, crossing a chore off a list, winning at a slot machine, drinking alcohol, smoking, playing video games, or shooting a target at the range. Others, such as oxytocin and serotonin, are longer-lasting releases that come from things like altruistically helping others, building deep relationships, and living a healthy rhythm of life.

Happiness, then, is quite literally a neurological by-product of certain behaviors. But when it comes to dopamine, if you live to get that short burst of happiness, your brain will require more and more in order to release it. You’ll need to have more drinks, take more risky gambles, or set more goals to reach. So “being happy” is not quite as simple as figuring out what activates those neurotransmitters and doing it over and over again.

That’s also true for the other, deeper, longer-lasting happiness neurotransmitters. If you help others only to feel happy, you will find that happiness eludes you. If you build relationships only to make you happy, you will find that the grass is always greener on the other side. If you only live a healthy rhythm of life to make you happy, it will never be enough. It’s the unfortunate catch-22 of our quest for happiness: we all want it, but it was never designed to be a goal.

When you aim at happiness, you will miss it—every time. Helping others for your own personal gain is inherently selfish. Loving others and building deep relationships so they can make you feel good about yourself is manipulative. It doesn’t work.

The personal pursuit of happiness is a flawed endeavor. In fact, researchers have repeatedly found that when people make “feeling good about themselves” their ultimate pursuit, they actually end up tanking every other area of their lives!

A Different Focus

So what are we supposed to do? Are we all doomed to lives of despair?

Not quite.

We just need a new goal—a new target to aim for.

In the introduction to one of his most famous sermons, Jesus says that true happiness is a by-product of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, of a life lived right (Matt. 5:6). Later in that same message, Jesus outlines what practicing righteousness looks like.

Righteousness is the idea of living in line with God’s will and intention for human beings. Jesus gives his listeners three behaviors that have righteousness as their goal: prayer, generosity, and fasting. Each of these behaviors taps into an important relational dimension of our lives.

Prayer taps into our relationship with God. Living in line with God’s will and intention means engaging in relational dialogue with God. It means acknowledging who God is and all God has done throughout history (Matt. 6:9). It means setting aside our own wills and plans for life submitting to God’s will (Matt. 6:10). It means telling God what we need physically, relationally, and spiritually (Matt. 6:11-13). But if you engage in a relationship with God simply to make yourself look or feel good, you will find that selfish end eluding you.

Generosity taps into our relationships with others (Matt. 6:1-4). Living generously toward others without expecting anything in return is an important part of living well. But again, Jesus explains that those who are generous with others only for personal gain will not end up receiving what they originally set out to find. If you help others only to feel good about yourself, that won’t happen.

Fasting taps into our relationship with ourselves, our rhythms and desires. Do we give in to every impulse and craving, or are we capable of mastering our own flesh? Yet again, if you fast only so you can feel good about yourself, you will require the affirmation of others, and fasting so others will praise you will never satisfy that hunger for happiness in the long term!

Jesus’ teaching is simple: happy are those who hunger for and seek after living in line with God’s will when it comes to being in relationship with God, others, and oneself. Unhappy are those who hunger for and seek after personal happiness.

So to all those pursuing happiness: Quit. Give up. As the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes said, you’re “chasing after the wind.”

That’s because happiness is not a goal. It’s a behavioral by-product of a life lived in line with God’s will. This is why I think everyone should follow Jesus. Make righteousness the goal, and the rest will follow. Just imagine how different our world would look if people were chasing that goal. Besides, it's what we’re biologically wired for!

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some things that make you happy? Have they given you lasting happiness?
  2. What do you think biblical righteousness means? Can you describe it?
  3. Have you ever practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting? What was the experience like?
  4. What are some ways we can cultivate generosity in our lives?

About the Author

Corey Van Huizen is the pastor of The Gathering, a church plant in Caledonia, Mich. He and his wife, Alanna, love all things on, in, or near water. 

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Good article. Refreshing...

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