I subscribe to the daily Breakpoint Commentaries from Prison Fellowship. They usually deal with relevant social issues, anything from politics to the latest blockbuster movie. This is one that I found especially interesting, enough so that I saved it. I was thinking of it again today and wanted to share:

September 30, 2003
No. 030930

First Things First
The Pursuit of Happiness

Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert is working on one of the most fascinating projects I’ve heard about in a long time: He’s studying happiness — scientifically.

Specifically, Gilbert and his associates are doing research on what they call “affective forecasting.” That is, they’re trying to find out how we predict what will make us happy, and whether our predictions are accurate. Their research has led them to believe that we often don’t know what we want — even when we think we do.

Reporter Jon Gertner writes in the New York Times Magazine, “What Gilbert has found . . . is that we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions — our ‘affect’ — to future events. In other words, we might believe that a new BMW will make life perfect. But it will almost certainly be less exciting than we anticipated; nor will it excite us for as long as we predicted.”

On the other hand, bad things don’t always hurt us as much as we fear they will; we have a remarkable ability to adapt even to the worst circumstances. Gilbert’s associate George Loewenstein told the Times, “In the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to . . . go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.”

What all of this means, the researchers say, is that human beings tend to make bad decisions because they’re wrong about what will or will not make them happy. Now, Gertner’s point about the BMW is fairly obvious, even if you’ve never blown too much money on a fancy car — it’s easy to see that materialism has never made anyone truly happy. But it’s a little sobering to realize just how many of our important decisions are based on wrong thinking and transitory emotions. Bad choices in all of the major areas of our lives — education, career, marriage, and more — can be traced back to mistaken beliefs about what will make us happy.

The truth is that spending our whole lives chasing what we want is the best way not to find happiness. Look at the way America‘s founding fathers used the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ We tend to interpret those words from the Declaration of Independence to mean that we’re all entitled to do whatever we think will make us happy at any given moment — exactly the tendency that Gilbert is warning us against.

But the founders were talking about something very different: Those words meant the freedom to make our best efforts toward living a virtuous life. They believed that this was the path toward true happiness. When we seek God’s best instead of our own, we find a higher standard by which to make our decisions — a standard that doesn’t change when our feelings do.

As C. S. Lewis put it, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”

This study is the first bona fide research I know that validates what the Bible teaches. Science confirms that chasing our own personal desires is a dead end. Christians know that, and we know that “seeking first the kingdom of God” is the choice that brings true and lasting satisfaction.

For further reading:

Jon Gertner, “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness,” New York Times Magazine, 7 September 2003. (Free registration required).

Marilyn Elias, “Psychologists now know what makes people happy,” USA Today, 8 December 2002.

Nathan Long, “Water for Life,” Boundless, 27 July 2000.

C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1994).

C. S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian (Touchstone, 1996).

BreakPoint Commentary No. 021122, “A Life Well-Lived.” (Archived commentary; free registration required.)

BreakPoint Commentary No. 010704, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” (Archived commentary; free registration required.)

BreakPoint Commentary No. 001116, “Hollywood and Happiness.” (Archived commentary; free registration required.)

Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism (InterVarsity, 2002).

© 2003 Prison Fellowship

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