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Want to Be Happy? Stop Striving After the Wind

Every evening in the small seaport city of Les Cayes, Haiti, the faint echo of jubilant singing cuts through the stillness of the night air, still heavy with tropical heat. If you follow this sound, you will find a small building made of cinderblocks and a tin roof. During the day, this building is empty but for a few stray dogs. But tonight, as on every night, in this crude building with a dirt floor and handmade wooden benches, over one hundred Haitian people are gathered close together, their hands raised high, their faces radiant, proclaiming again and again, “Merci Jezi! Beni swa l’eternel!”

[pq]Our endless quest for happiness through ‘more’ can actually be the very cause of our unhappiness.[/pq]

On one of those uncomfortable benches, I sat, speechless and awestruck, trying to understand from my privileged Western mindset what compelled these Christians to gather every single night to raise their starving voices in worship, and in the midst of their suffering and poverty, declare, “Thank you, Jesus. Blessed be the Eternal One.”

Utterly devoid of those things we often turn to for fulfillment and purpose—power, pleasure, and possessions—these impoverished Haitian believers manifested the deepest joy and most sincere happiness I have ever witnessed. They had discovered the secret to true happiness, and I wanted it.

It wasn’t until talking with a young Haitian friend named Felix that I began to understand how these followers of Jesus could go to bed night after night with empty stomachs and tired bodies and no hope for a better future, yet morning after morning wake up with gratitude in their hearts and a praise to God on their lips. What was their formula for happiness? In Felix’s simple but sincere words, “I don’t need money to make me happy. I don’t need food to make me happy. I have Jesus. He is all I need to be happy.”

These words, and the trial-tested joy behind them, are radically counter-cultural in our Western context. In his recent New York Times op-ed, Arthur Brooks explains how our endless quest for happiness through more—more money, more power, more sex—can actually be the very cause of our unhappiness. Brooks explains:

We are unambiguously driven to accumulate material goods, to seek fame, to look for pleasure…[and] we assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. […] We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. […]

This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others—that is, the cycle of grasping and craving—follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly: Love things, use people.

Brooks illustrates this through the story of Abd al-Rahman, a Spanish ruler who boasted more wealth, pleasure and power than we can likely imagine, yet whose unhappiness was commensurate with his privilege. A similar example is found in the story of Solomon, king of Israel. Solomon accumulated incredible political power, unfathomable wealth, and one thousand women. If the “good life” is found in power, possessions, and pleasure, then Solomon should have experienced unmatched happiness. Yet this ancient king writes in the book of Ecclesiastes:

I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure…. Then I considered all that my hands had done…and behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

What did the Haitians realize that al-Rahman, King Solomon, and so many of us are prone to miss if we aren’t careful? True happiness requires that we “invert the deadly formula and render it virtuous,” so that we love people, and use things. When external circumstances, material goods, or social status fail to satisfy our search for lasting well-being, let us remember that true happiness is found in:

…the courage to repudiate pride and the strength to love others—family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies.

It requires a deep skepticism of our own basic desires. […] You have a responsibility to yourself to stay in the battle. The day you declare a truce is the day you become unhappier.