Is your pursuit of happiness setting you up for a big let down?

Lori Gottlieb thinks it is. She asks and answers this crucial question in July’s issue of The Atlantic in an article titled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist, says she is being barraged by more and more 20 and 30-somethings coming to her with the same general complaint: they suffer from “depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose – yet they had little to quibble with about Mom or Dad.”

This common complaint was personified in one young adult who had what would seem to be a perfect life–wonderful parents, handsome husband, two healthy children, strong friendships, a law degree from Yale, a successful career as a freelance writer, and a beautiful mansion home. She said “she feels ‘dissatisfied, that something [is] missing.’ So to counteract her ‘bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness, and free-floating guilt,’ she goes on a ‘happiness journey,’ making lists and action items, buying three new magazines every Monday for a month, and obsessively organizing her closets.” 

Why are so many young adults struggling with this? Although Gottlieb left her graduate studies thinking that the blame fell squarely on parents who were messing up their children by a lack of attention and affection, now she believes just the opposite. Gottlieb has learned that our generation of parents are ruining their children not by lack of attention but by too much of the wrong kind of attention. “Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?” she asks. Gottlieb now believes that by pointing our children to happiness as life’s chief pursuit, parents are inevitably setting them up for failure and discontent. Barry Schwatz, a professor of social theory, agrees: “happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing. … But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”

How does this apply to you as a college student? Over the past few years, college deans “have reported receiving growing numbers of incoming freshmen they’ve dubbed ‘teacups’ because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way.” This means that we need to realize most of us believe that making and keeping ourselves happy is the most important pursuit in life. It also means that many of us have been so sheltered from unhappiness that we have come to feel entitled to a constant sense of happiness flowing from life going the way we want it to.

Of course, the problem is that real life is full of problems and struggles, and we won’t always feel happy. In a culture that teaches us to pursue and expect happiness all the time, how are we going to learn how flourish in real life in a broken-down world and avoid the constant sense of discontent and fragility described in this article?

The Bible gives us two crucial answers. First, it tells us that there is something about our desire for happiness that is right. God made us to experience joy. Over and over again, the Bible says that our hearts will not be content until we experience that joy. It also tells us that the joy we seek will only be found in Him. Psalm 16:11 says that “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” As C.S. Lewis put it so well: “”If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Our desire for happiness is not wrong. We have been looking in the wrong places. 

Second, it teaches us that there is something about our expectation for happiness that is wrong. The Bible tells us that we live in a broken world that is full of hardship, tears, and struggle. It will be this way until Jesus comes back at the end of the age. Letting this truth shape our expectations means that we won’t expect constant happiness in this life and will be prepared for a multitude of hardships. Although we will find real joy and contentment in God even in this broken-down world, the completion and fullness of that joy will not be experienced until Jesus makes “all things new” (Rev 21:5).

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