Popular psychology has been transitioning over the past couple of decades. It’s happier now or, at least, it’s talking about happiness more than it did.
For generations, psychology was principally interested in pathology, in aberrant and self-defeating behaviors. Psychiatry has helped the world find relief from life-crushing mental illnesses and has improved the lives of millions of sufferers. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other routinely prescribed medications have proved enormously helpful.
In recent years, research in the field of psychology increasingly has turned toward the light rather than away from the darkness; that is, has turned its attention to gaining happiness rather than to treating pathology. This is not just pop psychology going through a phase. A quick search of Google Scholar will confirm academia’s growing interest in positive psychology.
John Ortberg points out that psychologists who focus their efforts on helping people achieve happiness will inevitably find themselves using values-laden language. They cannot help but enter the arena of ethics and morality, where the experts have not been scientists but philosophers and religious authorities. They frequently cite the Buddha, Aristotle, Confucius, and others.
Ortberg has noticed the one person they do not quote: Jesus. This is surprising because Jesus has done more to shape western culture’s understanding of the good life than any other thinker, ancient or modern. Ortberg suggests a reason for this omission: mental health professionals are five times as likely as the rest of us to self-identify as atheists.
But there may be another, more immediate, reason. Aristotle talked about happiness; Jesus didn’t. For Aristotle, the question of how to be happy was central, since he believed that happiness was the truest indicator of the good life. (However, it should be said that Aristotle’s conception of happiness and the good life is largely foreign to modern psychology and would appear uninviting to many Americans.)
Although Jesus did not talk about happiness as such, he did talk about joy, which he saw as the result of the good life. He did not see joy as the sap running through the tree but as the fruit the healthy tree produces. For Jesus, it is righteousness – right relationships with God and people – not happiness, that is key.
Unlike the Utilitarian school of thought, which sees happiness as life’s ultimate goal and the happiness of the largest number of people as the body politic’s governing principle, Jesus almost entirely ignores happiness. His counsel would, in fact, seem antithetical to the common-sense happiness seeker.
Jesus repeatedly told his students that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” When we hear this – and perhaps his first students were like us on this score – we perceive a paradox but do not recognize any practical counsel. Yet Jesus’s teaching here is utterly practical, founded on his knowledge and experience.
Jesus understood that the surest path to dissatisfaction is the way of preoccupation with oneself. To try to secure one’s life because it is one’s life and not another’s is to lose one’s life, as millions have discovered. To seek a pleasure because it is my pleasure is to let the pleasure slip through my fingers. If you doubt this, try an experiment: the next time you are ravished by some pleasure – a beautiful piece of music, a glorious sunset, or the enjoyment of a perfectly prepared dish – turn your attention to your experience of the pleasure. In that instant, the spell will be broken, the magic will be gone.
Jesus knew that we are most ourselves when we are living for something or someone other than ourselves. Certainly some people have experienced an almost mystical quality of life while collecting butterflies. Others have transcended their limitations in sports or music the moment they have lost themselves and all thought of themselves in the sport or music. In losing their lives they have found them.
According to Jesus’s promise, people who lose their lives for his sake and for the gospel will transcend life’s ultimate limitation: death. They will lose their lives in God, only to find their lives in the eternal joy of being.
First published by Gatehouse Media