A Beginners Guide to Happiness

Norman Vincent Peale popularized the idea of “the Power of Positive Thinking” back in the 50’s.  Since then the positive psychology movement has saturated many sectors of society.  From the fortune 500 company to the United States Military, we are all expected to think happy thoughts.  It is widely assumed that if we think happier, we will be happier.  We could call this the Tinkerbell philosophy of life.  Many recent studies, however, show a correlation between this positive psychology and a tendency among many to depression and even failure.  People are expected to be happy, and when they are not, we try to perk them up with a nice bumper sticker platitude.  People are expected to walk around with a plastered smile and a bubbly frivolity.  Why?  Because that is more productive, and we like productivity.  Productivity pays.  Like in Huxley’s Brave New World we strive for “Community, Identity, and Stability.”

And yet, ironically, positive thinking often yields negative results, non-productivity.  This is because many people cope positively through a bit of negativity.  Not all negativity is bad.  The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this a long time ago.  Ecclesiastes is supposed to be a dour and unhelpful book, one that is to be avoided once we’ve truly seen the light of positive thinking.  But nothing can be further from the truth.  Ecclesiastes reveals the ephemeral nature of our lives but also our need to recognize life’s limitations.

The power of Ecclesiastes is this reminder about the rough edges of life.  Nothing in this world can ever deeply satisfy.  Also, even the ethical quest to better the world will only yield meager results.  “What is crooked cannot ever be straightened.”  If we still think we can find satisfaction, we are kidding ourselves.  If we think we can put an ultimate end to evil and suffering, we haven’t tried hard enough and failed yet.  It’s almost as if we were made for something greater than these temporary diversions and ethical crusades.

We were made to surrender to a being “than that which nothing greater can be thought.”  If we tap out to lesser created beings, we will always have this gnawing suspicion that there is something greater, something happier out there.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that it is only to God that we must give an account.  That is the relationship that we can really lose ourselves in.  We lose ourselves only to gain ourselves back.  But which God, you say?  That would require a completely different article, but I will say this much: the God must be able to fit the key lock of our souls.  He must be able to humble us to the depths and also lift us up in infinite love, to show us our lowliness in his shadow but also conquer us with his humility.  Assuming that there are not multiple options that would work, who are the best candidates for the job?  Another question is whether we are able to slow down, turn off the tube, and cease from our clamor.  Are we able to create space for ourselves to listen, study, or pray in order to find out if there is a God and who he may be?  Or are we too busy trying to think happy thoughts in this modern never-never-land?

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