Each year the UN rates the happiest places in the world, based on such factors as freedom, generosity, lack of corruption, healthy life expectancy, and social support. Scandinavian countries usually score high: Finland currently ranks as the happiest country, followed by Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. Very poor countries and war zones such as Yemen and Syria score the lowest.

The United States, which ranks 18th of the 156 countries surveyed, has been trending downward for a decade. Although the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in our founding documents, there’s no guarantee that we’ll achieve the goal. The report mentions obesity, the opioid crisis, and persistent poverty as reasons for the recent decline in U.S. happiness.

A few years ago I was asked to speak on happiness in South Korea and in Hong Kong.  Despite their high standard of living, both places fall toward the middle on the Happiness Index, dragged down by high rates of depression and suicide.  As I explored the topic, I began to see happiness as a surprisingly elusive goal.  Here are some of my observations:

True happiness must be rooted in reality.  Advertisements promise that a Rolex watch will get me instant status, the right deodorant will make me irresistible, and a no-effort diet plan will transform my life.  A mecca for entertainment, the U.S. offers an endless supply of video games, amusement parks, and around-the-clock streaming of music, television, and movies.  For a vacation I can visit Disney World, a paradise with no litter and no graffiti, where costumed characters greet everyone with smiles and waves.  Sooner or later, though, I must return to the real world of weedy lawns, potholed streets, and cranky neighbors.  Artificial happiness doesn’t prepare us for the realities of life, and may even sow seeds of discontent.

Happiness may involve struggle, and even pain.  You need only watch the euphoria of an Olympic marathoner, or a triathlete, to realize that peaks of happiness sometimes follow agonizing hours of exertion.  As I look back on my years in Colorado, I remember many happy moments standing atop its 14,000-foot mountains.  On the summits I forgot all about the hailstorms, snow fields, and scary ledges, those memories now swallowed up by the joy of a successful ascent.  You can get a similar view from a chairlift ride—but, oh, what a difference.

Lin Yutang, a convert from Buddhism to Christianity, reflected on an ancient Chinese formula of thirty supreme pleasures.  One by one, he went through the list: “To be dry and thirsty in a hot and dusty land and to feel great drops of rain on my bare skin—ah, is this not happiness!  To have an itch in a private part of my body and finally to escape from my friends and go to a hiding place where I can scratch—ah, is this not happiness!”  In each of the supreme pleasures he found pain and ecstasy inescapably mixed.  Augustine said something similar: “Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.”

Happiness is fleeting.  “Happiness is like a cat,” wrote William Bennett.  “If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come.  But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.”  We persist in thinking that fame, success, and money will guarantee happiness, even though we have many proofs to the contrary: Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams.  Happiness often recedes from those who pursue it; it comes instead as a by-product.

Loneliness fosters unhappiness.  Conversely, true happiness tends to emerge as we’re involved with others.  A Chinese proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”

Numerous studies have shown that people who volunteer—for example, in rescue missions, prison ministry, or tutoring programs—have better overall health and an improved sense of well-being.  “Happy are the merciful…and the peacemakers,” said Jesus in the Beatitudes.  The good that we do for others redounds to our own benefit.

Happiness flows from inner health, regardless of outer circumstances.  Many who go on mission trips return from deeply impoverished countries amazed at the comparative happiness of the people they have come to “help.”  There, social support and strong family ties help raise the level of happiness despite economic challenges.

A competitive society, the U.S. holds out the mythical promise that any child can become President, every poor person can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, any athlete can make it to the NFL or NBA.  And when that dream founders, discontent or even despair sets in.  High expectations lead to deep disappointment.

The New Testament sets forth another way, of inner strength.  “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  The apostle Paul wrote those words, in his most joyful letter, from a prison cell.

Some of my most important lessons about inner contentment come from another prisoner, Viktor Frankl, who spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp.  “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died reduced to one thing: meaning.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he said: “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The Library of Congress named Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the ten most influential books of recent times.  Its core message, emphasizing a commitment to something greater than the self,  seems strangely at odds with our culture’s frantic pursuit of happiness.  Frankl admitted as much: “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’  But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.  One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40 percent of Americans do not believe their lives have a clear sense of purpose or a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.  Frankl gives this charge: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter.  The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.”

The pursuit of happiness may have been one of the motivations for founding our country.  But the pursuit of meaning may guarantee its future.




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40 responses to “Are You Happy?”

  1. Fred Chopin says:

    Thank you for a provoking thought post!! I just found your blog and was/am happy!!🌈🌱🎁✌️😉

  2. Good morning Philip, I generally share the morning with you, in your absence. This subject and your accurate portrayal in words is both timely and timeless. We read in the accounts of the writers of inspired scripture that hard times and persecution are current (back then) and continue today and that happiness in every form is directly related to the condition of the heart. It is no surprise for those of us who have experienced the life-changing event of becoming Born Again that the original heart, and it’s condition from birth are not capable of knowing happiness as a natural expression. It becomes one of the gifts of Grace, which requires nothing from us except to receive it when each of us simply surrenders to Jesus all that has made our heart sad and meaningless. The Joy of living a life of thanksgiving and desiring to express Grace and Agape love in all that we do always welcomes true happiness and fulfilment of purpose, as Brother Lawrence considered anything and everything as his glorifying God in all that we do for others is done directly, or indirectly, for Him.

    You Philip are one of those, and your gift of expression in words makes every day a happy day for me. I often feel helpless in what I can do for the Kingdom of God here on earth but try to help others as I can and stay ready to rise up each morning with Matthew’s words 28-,18 – 20 at work in my heart and on my mind. Thanks Philip for your Purpose. Steve

  3. Margaret says:

    Oh WOW, Philip! Just got a chance to read this, and it might be one of my favorite posts, and not just because I have always loved the writings of Dr Frankl. So many of our friends are retired and some keep asking when we are going to do the same. But I can’t imagine not renewing my passport another 10 years so I can keep helping people on the other side of the world. Okay, sometimes I can. I don’t relish the heat, sticky humidity, thirst, mosquitoes, bugs, dirt and germs anymore than anyone else. But when I am able to help someone, and let them know that God sees their hard life, and sent me to tell them that He cares and loves them, I experience such unbounded joy and happiness. Helping others is truly the key to overcoming the discouragement that comes with old age, even for someone who is bedridden. One of the most happy, joyful people I ever knew was an elderly bedridden woman, crippled with arthritis. She couldnt travel, but had a ministry of calling, praying for, and painfully writing cards for people who needed encouragement. Like Psalm 103 says, “He redeems my life from destruction, so that my youth is renewed like the eagles!” (maybe that includes the destruction of happiness that often comes to people of any age?

  4. Carol Allen says:

    I just love your words, references and explanations. I’m re-reading What’s So Amazing About Grace and continue to find help there. The authors you mention have become those I search for and read to delve deeper. Buechner, Lewis, Nouwen, Bonhoeffer: rich sources for MORE!
    Being a recovering addict, I have an inexhaustible supply of people who need Good News, and because I stay in the Rooms of recovery, my experiences survive in the lives of others!
    Thank you for your reminders of living Grace!

  5. Nermeen kadry says:

    I usually enjoy reading your translated books …I receive God through your words …you express my struggle with God very well … right now I’m reading ” what’s so amazing about grace ? ” …. it helped me to return to God again after a period of time of disconnecting I needed to hear about grace… but when you talk about forgiveness It makes me angry …. I can’t forgive …I can’t …It’s easy to accept grace when I need it but it’s difficult to give it when I want justice…. the hard equation (forgiveness and justice ) … I wanted several times to write to you I have alot to talk about with you … I wished to meet you or e-mail you if you permit

    • Philip Yancey says:

      You’re right, forgiveness is hard! Look at how much Joseph went through before he was able to forgive his brothers. I would recommend books by Lewis Smedes on forgiveness, such as Forgive and Forget.

  6. Anikuttan W h says:

    I think it is very good explanation,I feel happy

  7. David Graham says:

    I have been thinking about this blog entry for the past few days and imagine that you will get an intriguing variety of responses to it. The first item in your blog that caught my attention was the U.N.’s ranking of Finland as the happiest place on earth. My reaction was, ‘But what about their high rates of alcoholism (top 20 worldwide for consumption), depression (one of the highest in Europe), suicides, and cold, dark winters?’ Obviously, measuring the inner health of happiness or satisfaction is a subjective business.

    I agree with your points that true happiness must be rooted in reality, is fleeting, and that it often involves struggle and pain. As you were the one who connected me with Theodore Dalrymple, I’ll mention that his chapter “Goodbye, Cruel World” in ‘Life at the Bottom’ mentions one source of unhappiness: the boredom of self-absorption. This is one of the problems in societies that easily put people on welfare. When you have few interests outside of yourself & when you have no meaningful job, happiness is not expected. “The boredom of self-absorption is thus one of the promoters of attempted suicide, and being attached to a cardiac monitor for a time or having an intravenous infusion in one’s arm helps to relieve it. I’m treated, therefore I am.”

    I also thought of a bit from Dalrymple’s “The Frivolity of Evil” in ‘Our Culture, What’s Left of It’. “There is something to be said here about the word ‘depression,’ which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one’s state of mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.”

    Here in small-town Virginia, I have seen so many people in my medical practice who don’t work, who are on welfare, lots of medications (and usually cigarettes) and who don’t strike me as being very happy. I think this is where Dalrymple and Frankl agree, that meaning is important to a human and to take this away – which is too often self-induced by those looking to stop working in order to get on the government dole – is to take away one’s contentment & happiness. Work can be tiring, even depressing at times. But it is also a key ingredient to happiness. (By work, I mean not just vocation but avocation, as people who are retired also need something meaningful to do. This is where women usually outshine men, especially housewives, who never really retire but continue to work domestically for most of their lives.)

    So I think you made a nice conclusion in writing, “The pursuit of happiness may have been one of the motivations for founding our country. But the pursuit of meaning may guarantee its future.”

  8. Larry says:

    The report mentions obesity, the opioid crisis, and persistent poverty as reasons for the recent decline in U.S. happiness.

    Perhaps- Those aren’t reasons for decline in happiness, but outward symptoms of inner unhappiness already going on.

    Thank you for your wonderful writings and openheartedness.

  9. Mary says:

    Reading this made me happy. Thank you.

  10. Olusegun Owopetu says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

  11. Michelle Ravensbergen says:

    I appreciate the way you think. Thank you for making time to work out those thoughts into words for us. In the reading I am reminded about the entire Word of God — He gave us the suffering part first (OT) so that we would know the glory of His grace (happiness?) in the New Testament. Only juxtaposed to darkness are we able to see light. Amen and amen!

  12. O'Ann Steere says:

    Jim says happiness is a good meal with old friends. Especially if they have spend the day as “iron sharpening iron.” Slightly jealous I wasn’t there.

    I just found this blog courtesy of a Facebook post. I will enjoy it as part of my early morning coffee time reading.

  13. Jan Kirkham says:

    I thank God for your insightful and transformational messages which are absorbed by ‘hungry hearts’ across the globe. ‘Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it come and sits softly on your shoulder.’ <3

  14. James Abana says:

    I was reading this article while going through a Storm; I couldn’t find enough sleep at night, my marriage plan for the third time is falling apart, and it is obvious there’s nothing I can do to restore it.

    This article brought me to the understanding that, I can still be happy because God has a better plan for me.

    Thanks Yancey for being there for me.

  15. Kathryn Montgomery says:

    Sunday 9/2 our Sunday school class will start a study in your book ‘Prayer’. Looking forward to this study. I thank our Lord Jesus that he hears and answers our prayers.

    Your points on happiness make sense.

  16. Edward Davidson, Ph.D. says:

    Today, we often hear the departing phrase, “Have a great day or have a nice day.”
    being a firm believer in CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I believe we should say, “Make if a great/good day. ” We have the power to do so.


  17. Deva says:

    The first book I read which you authored was Disappointment with God in the first year of my Bible college. And I always enjoyed the honesty and the truth that you present and make the reader think
    is what I’m fascinated about not thank you so much for encouraging, walking us through.
    My mentor always says, Blessed(Happy) is the man who does not expect. Which is very true but difficult even your article is so true buts difficult to live…

  18. Wayne Hoag says:

    Your words reflect those of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). I am continually surprised that my happiness meter registers the highest when I get out of the way.

  19. Ken says:

    Another great post. If you impart to me some of your wisdom, I promise I will impart to you my entire golf swing! Deal?

  20. benny jacob says:

    i copies many of your words to my facebook page while am reading this from kerala…where great flood devastated many parts of kerala last week. such a hard time , very touching and relevant are your words..as we are struggling together to rebuild kerala, thanks a lot, philip…

    benny from kerala, friend of Dr.mathew john USA

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Yes, I’ve been following your tragedy closely. Mathew John met us in Kerala some years ago. Bless you as you try to “redeem” this very difficult period of time. –Philip

  21. Veikko Uotinen says:

    Thank you, Philip, for this insightful and very timely article. I, too, will want to share some of those thoughts with others. It was great to meet you at the Langham Partnership Vision Weekend in April. And, by the way, when I was growing up, my Finnish parents always prayed AFTER the meal.

  22. Sharon Kuehnel says:

    Thank you for taking the time to blog! Your books have been extremely important in my life and your blogs are always thought provoking. The older I get the more I realize that it’s the giving of myself to those in need that’s brings me true contentment and inner joy. I always recieved more back than I give, internally. God is so good and I am thankful for you and your insight and honesty. Blessings.

  23. As a retired speech communications and theater arts professor, I can honestly say that I have spent my life spreading a little sunshine through smiles and treating my students with respect and gratitude. I was blessed to have every student that ever walked into one of my classrooms (even those who turned out to be a “bit” of a challenge to me). Now I work hard through my website to reach others with those same smiles and respect. I believe that people need to know they are appreciated and respected, not because of what they do but because of the “image of God” within them. Thank you for a wonderful post and reminder.

  24. Randall K. Mathews says:

    I look forward to your blogs each time that they appear on my computer screen. Each one is worth reading more than once. This one on happiness is especially relevant in my contemporary world of greed. Thank you for this timely reminder where my focus ought to be.

  25. Tobie van der Westhuizen says:

    Thank you Philip. I find it sad that happiness, and the path towards it, are oftentimes better understood and expounded by adherents of eastern religions than by Christians. The notion that desire (and the anticipation that it breeds) blinds us to the miracle of life in the here and now, and deceitfully sets us up for disillusionment, is central to both Testaments, and also to Genesis 3’s tragic account of the fall of humanity. There was a time when I struggled to align Frankl’s concentration camp visions, of him teaching students in a warm and well-lit classroom, sharing the lessons that he had learnt in those horrid circumstances, with the idea that we should gladly sacrifice our expectations and anticipations, as Abraham did when he sacrificed Isaac. But then I saw that the discovery of meaning, and the joy that it brings, do not depend on circumstances going our way. Frankl’s insights would not have been refuted had he perished in the snow. That is the whole point of meaning. It transcends the achievement of a goal, and trusts “fate” (Frankl’s term – we would say “Christ”) to make things work out, even if we do not live to see such an outcome. (The image that comes to mind is Mel Gibson’s FREE-E-E-D-O-OM!! at the end of Braveheart 🙂)

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Beautifully expressed. I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison right now, and he did perish in the snow, and in the process his life makes the very point you mention. And you’re absolutely right about Christianity/eastern religions similar thinking on happiness. Our Bible includes Ecclesiastes, after all–is there a better description of happiness pursued in vain?

  26. Mike woodall says:

    Amy Carmichael ‘s poem , Hast thou no scar, seems to go well with this post. you will have to look it up for your self, sorry.

  27. Jody Davison says:

    I just finished reading this message at the same time I am finishing up eating a well balanced and nutritious breakfast, and I can’t help but think about the feeling of satisfaction in my belly I have received from doing these two things simultaneously. My grandfather used to pray before meal time, “For what we are about to receive, may we truly be grateful.” It’s still my favorite meal time prayer. To whom am I grateful? The giver of every good and perfect gift, of course. Right at this point, I thank you, Philip, for a lovely bit of perspective as I start my day, and I pray you find moments of joy within your own journey.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      At our home, we’re radical: we pray after the meal. That way, we know exactly what we’re grateful for–and the food stays hot! –Philip

  28. Janice Elias says:

    I recall reading in one of your books co-authored with Paul Brand, a story about the contentment and pride in his work experienced by a barber in India. In contrast was the experience of a barber in Los Angeles who was complaining and unhappy, though paid far more. The question posed was: “Why should we try to export our way of life so that more people could be miserable?”
    This article gives us more to ponder – the relationship between effort and happiness.

  29. Rev. Ed Dayton says:

    thanks so much for these timely words. With your permission I would very much like to share your thoughts with my congregation.

  30. fernando l. galvez says:

    living and fullfilling the purpose of ones life i.e. the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is the only way to find happiness whatever our status in life after finding salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

  31. Gideon Yutzy says:

    Good words, Philip Yancey. I remember reading Frankl’s book and how it made an impression on me. He also said that we should never pursue success, as I recall. Like happiness, it must be a by-product.
    Something else that I’ve found to be vital for happiness: being grateful and keeping gratitude journals.
    Best regards,
    Gideon Yutzy

  32. Paul and Esther Baxendale says:

    Always enjoy your excellent readings!!!

  33. Rebecca Colafrancesco says:

    Romans 5:3-5
    It is absolutely necessary to experience trials to ultimately experience joy… at the absolute core is the love of God being poured out on us through the residence of the Holy Spirit within.

  34. I think meaning is the key to my happiness in retirement. I write and publish meaningful memoirs many of which explore the joys and sorrows of my life. I have increased my involvement in our church, being of greater service. In the challenges of marriage in retirement I have drawn closer to my wife. I have focused on the gym to allow me the fitness for a vigorous life of service in my eighth decade. Finally I have read more quality fiction and non-fiction inderscoring that which is meaningful. I am blessed by our precious savior, Jesus Christ.

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