I’m sure you’re familiar with the modern idea that happiness – or at least its pursuit, is a human right. In the UK, David Cameron recently announced plans to construct a ‘happiness index’, measuring the country’s well-being. Even in Brazil, (promoted as ‘land of the party’), a bill enshrining the pursuit of happiness is expected to gain Senate approval.
It seems pretty obvious that to claim the ‘right’ to happiness is absurd. As Lewis argues, asserting the “right” to happiness is as ridiculous as the “right” to be a millionaire or a “right” to be six feet tall. One might also add the right to celebrity, good looks or even a job. After all, if being a millionaire or six feet tall are the only things that are going to make you happy, then you would have a right to be both of those things. Since being six feet tall is a question of genetics and only a few of us become millionaires, either your “right” to happiness has been taken away or it didn’t exist to begin with.
I reckon that Lewis is right about ‘rights’, (I’m sure he’d be relieved to have my support on this). But whilst I say one thing, my heart tells me something different. I deserve some happiness, or at least, a comfortable existence. So, when hard times come, my inward response is one of shock and outrage. Why is this happening to me? It’s not fair. I’m owed better.
Of course the gospel reminds me that talk of such rights is nonsense. Jesus offers us life to the full – but He also bids us come and die. Once I allow my emotional barometer to direct my spiritual health, I’m in big trouble.
But the debate has widened, with some arguing that what began as the ‘right’ to happiness has now become a demand. This month has seen the English publication of Pascal Bruckner’s book on the nature of happiness. Entitled, ‘Perpetual Euphoria: On The Duty To Be Happy’, Bruckner’s thesis is that happiness was a right which has now become an obligation. He links this to the social revolution of the 60s, an era of instant gratification with a new focus on the self.
After the 60s, there is no more distance between one’s happiness and oneself. One becomes one’s own obstacle. To overcome this obstacle a huge market opened: medicine to modify your mood, surgery to modify your body, and it also includes the spread of therapy and new or reformed religions. So Jesus is no longer this transcendent God, but a life coach who helps you overcome addiction.
The problem is this – with no obstacle to happiness, it becomes a kind of moral obligation, a pressure that causes all kinds of mental health issues. Thus he characterises depression as ‘ the disease of a society that is looking desperately for happiness, which we cannot catch. And so people collapse into themselves’.
Eating disorders are another expression of such unachievable expectations for personal satisfaction. They are lived parables of humanity turned in upon itself, attempting to exert control over at least one inviolable sphere – the body. In reality however, we don’t have control over our bath water, let alone our futures.
Instead of a right or an obligation, Bruckner concludes that, ‘happiness is more like a moment of grace’. Scripture reminds us that life itself is a series of such moments, the gift of a gracious God, who alone gives us joy and fulfilment.