The Happiness Equation and This Hallelujah Banquet- What Does it Mean to Be Happy

I had a slightly disorienting experience this week with one of my current reads (Eugene Peterson’s final book, This Hallelujah Banquet, and a recent podcast episode from Bookmark: Ologies (episode 97) and featuring an interview with Neil Pasricha, the author of The Book of Awesome/The Happiness Equation and the 1000 Awesome Things blog.

The episode, as is Pasricha’s book, is all about the importance of happiness and how to be happier than we currently are (as opposed to happy). Pasricha cites a lot of studies in his argument for the potential of present and future happiness, building it around his three A’s- Attitude, Awareness, and Authenticity. It’s worth noting that a simple google search brings up a plethora of articles all shaping their findings around similar sets of “threes” using different but similarly meaning words and equations.

Much of what Pasricha argues is common sense stuff that we intuitively know and should not be suprised by. The suprise perhaps comes from our inherent resistance to happiness. Some of this comes as a result of the evolutionary process (the fight or flight portion of our brain), some of it comes from social formation and experiences, and some of it from our addiction to the negative and the power of addictive activities such as smart phones and social media (which he submits is by design, although he leaves it a little unclear how much of this is tapping into the human condition or how much  of it is shaping the human condition contrary to its nature).

Crucial to his understanding of happiness is the mathematical equation that sees the detmination of happiness parsed out in the following way- 50 percent is biological, 10 percent is circumstantial, and 40 percent is due to human choices. Although he cites this equation, I remain a bit skeptical on this front. It seems to me that there would be a necessary ebb and flow to this equation that is shaped by our experiences and our circumstnaces and our biology to differing degrees. To submit 40 percent to our choices also faces an uphill battle when wrestling with the science of what notions of free will actually is, and whether there is such a thing at all. To be taken seriously, or as something more than mere popular science attending to the emotions, this would need a lot of more work in my mind to exposit. Especially when it comes to contextualization, because human choice making up 40 percent of the Happiness Equation feels like an American centric way of thinking and viewing the world where the self made individual takes precedence. Which is ironic given that America rarely if never sits near the top of the only global happiness study that happens each year within the UN (a unique and collaborative researched agreement between all of the nations).

This is important to note because his entire premise depends on this equation being true. We can posit, for example, the science behind nature being good for us (like taking the time for a walks in the woods), but while this can remain true, circumstances can often render this more or less inconsequential or more or less helpful. Along with this, too much of his premise assumes his articulated vision of happiness leading to more productiveness leading to success (as opposed to the typical American dream, and in his case being from India and chasing after the American dream, that sees success as equal to happiness). The problem is he doesn’t really articulate what success is. What it is that we are motived towards. Why if, as he submits, happiness takes a lot of work and effort and doesn’t always promise reward, we should still invest in happiness in such a way.

What perhaps brought this most to light for me is when he cites the article/study detailing the End of History Illusion (by Jordi Quoidbach and Daniel Gilbert). This study, which looked at around 19,000 individuals came to the overwhelming consensus that humans have a very real tendency to see their circumstances as staying the same when thinking about the future even though their past demonstrates that they do not in fact remain the same. When looking at the past we can see how who we are now and where we are now is different from who we were and where we were before, but for some reason our minds seem unable to translate that into hope for the future. As the article suggests, this has implications for how we then motivate ourselvses towards change by way of hope (although ineresting enough, change in this study, if measured by our past, still seems to occur regardless of hope).

Getting to what was disorienting about this all, it was interesting then to crack open Peterson’s book titled “How the End of What We Were Reveals Who We Can Be”. I was not even 10 pages in when my mind started to make the connection between his words and the interview from the podcast. The overlap was undeniable. Now here is what is interesting. This book by Peterson, who has since passed away, was put together posthumuosly using a sermon series he gave in the 60’s and incorporating his ongoing work through the years on the book of Revelation. Peterson’s own understanding of the “end” of history would likely sound like this, quoting T.S. Elliot:

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

page 3, This Hallelujah Banquet

Using the book of Revelation as his focal point, Peterson imagines this book as representing a point of crisis when it comes to “hope” and hope filled ideals. If Revelation says the future will be this, and life seems to reflect the opposite in the present, how do we then hope for a future that looks different than where we are now? Further, if, as Peterson submits, Revelation is being read wrongly as a future oriented vision, and the real call is to lay claim to its new creation vision in the here and now today, how do we reconcile the fact that today does not feel like this promised new creation vision?

These are the same sort of questions Pasricha is forced to confront with his own happiness equation. As Pasricha notes, these are the questions he gets most often- how do I take happiness seriously when circumstances seem to work towards the contrary? While I would encourage everyone to take the time to listen to his answer to this question, my own summary would boil it down to this- in all his encounters with people after the fact (of asking this question), he has never met anyone who looked back on a moment of distress years later and didn’t say that they are better for it. A job loss, well devastating in the moment, leads to better opportunities, for example.

What is revealing about this answer is that he confates reflection with “better” almost unintentionally. This to me sounds like the best answer one can come to when personal happiness alone, and for that matter happiness undefined (as he admits… it looks different for every person), remains the ultimate goal. He can speak of things like altruism as good, but only in the sense that it serves the self. He can speak of self care as necessary for good relationships, but again, only in so far as it serves the self. The equation- happiness leads to greater productivity leads to greater success- remains static and firm. Even if he chooses to see progress as the natural outcome of happiness, this is still remains the end to which we strive, with happiness intrinsicly tied to this view of success. To say or feel that we did something successful with the very few minutes that we ultimately have in this life, even if this is determined by our nature, becomes the goal, thus making success the determinitive factor. While he makes efforts to distinguish his response from those old platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “things will get better”, I can’t help but hear those same platitudes simply colored by a slightly more hued sentimentality. Actual hope seems allusive and slightly superficially applied in his equation when we speak of such an end. At best it can say that the “science” shows that if we do this we will be more likely to be happy. At best it can relegate our motivation to the same nature that also binds us to our disillusionment with this world and that enables us to survive. It represents a bit of a quagmire that is stuck trying to piece together the researched parts of his premise into a confusing and unarticulated meta-narrative that doesn’t really exist. Self help notes given an intellectual tinge meant to drive us towards success using emotional touchpoints without any real sense of why or without any real concrete sense of promise that can actually lead to real hope.

Which is where Peterson’s words stand out for me. While he tackles the same subject with the same concerns and the same themes with some striking overlap in conclusions, Peterson’s approach to “hope” centers the endgame not on happiness or success but on the present as a new beginning. And what’s striking is how what he shares emerges from truth that the modern age has long buried with its efforts to kill off religion and that Pasricha is simply playing off of in his own way by citing this “surprising’ science. Listening to the host of the podcast respond to Pasricha’s insights (which they are) with an obvious sense of awe and confoundment underscores how it is that we see something as profound and even profoundly liberating. That this is the same stuff religion has posited long before Pasricha should tell us something crucial about the bigger questions of human nature and its relationship to the divine, however we define that. Which to me is the problem with Pasricha’s approach, is that without some sense of the divine this becomes little more than simply another repackaged expression of the modern project that has hid happiness from our midst and handed us a false illusion in its place. The End of History Illusion simpy replaces the illusion with a different one, with the question of what that illusion is being crucial to how we reconcile hope within this equation, be it in a given sense or purely in a materialist and scientific sense.

One point of overlap that both Peterson and Pasricha share is their insistance on honesty in our expressions of happiness. Anything less is superficial and false. Peterson’s own word for happiness is “praise”, but it follows the same trajectory. While Pasricha suggests that happiness is not faking our way through the tough stuff, nor is it ignoring the tough stuff, Peterson puts it this way:

If we are to live praising lives, robust lives of affirmation, we must live truly, honestly, and coureously. We cannot take shortcuts to the act of praising. We cannot praise prematurely

page 18, This Hallelujah Banquet

Pasricha essentially says something similar when he says happiness is hard work. We cannot take shorcuts. This acknowledges with Peterson that “We have moments, it is true, when we give praise. But mostly we are aware of wants, of needs, of frustrations, of incompletions.” (page 19, This Hallelujah Banquet). Pasricha would say this is both ingrained in us by our nature, persisted in us by our genetics, and manipulated/grown in us by culture and society. Thus the 40 percent of that equation that comes down to choice, or, although he never goes so far as to label it as such, free will, as our ticket to freedom from despair. We see the reality of hardship and failure and suffering and venture to overcome it. This is the great American dream. And in many ways, according to his philosophy, we endeavor to overcome the lesser parts our natures, or at least what we perceive to be the negative parts of our nature, because this is the great modern human project. By contrast, Peterson, seeing in this not simply the patterns of human nature but the pattern of the Biblical story, says ” We don’t become praising people by avoiding or skipping or denying the pain and the poverty and the doubt and the guilt but by entering into them, exploring them, minding their significance, embracing the reality of these experiences.” (p20, This Hallelujah Banquet) We come into this world crying and kicking and screaming. We grow into happiness (or for Peterson praise) by living into a fuller story. As Peterson writes,

The only way genuine, authentic, and deep praise is ever accomplished is by embracing what is real. By accepting whatever takes place and living through it as thoroughly as we are able in faith. For in these moments, in these passages, we become human.

page 22, This Hallelujah Banquet

This is what Peterson describes as the way of Christ. Many theologians and scholars of the Judeo-Christian story have noted this as the distinct and uniquely patterened way of redemptive suffering. This is, Peterson declares “why praise is so exhilerating. It has nothing to do with slapping a happy face on a bad situation and grinning through it. It is fashioned deep within us, out of the sin and guilt and doubt and lonely despaiar that neverthless believes.” (Page 23, This Hallelujah Banquet)

And “in that believing, becomes whole.” The way to become whole is to live a praising life, but not a superficial one, rather one of honesty. Although I don’t recall Pasricha using the word “wholeness”, this does feel inferred by some of his unarticulated and underlying motivating assumptions. Similarly, he would and does argue that happiness has to come honestly if it is to be worth anything. This is, however, where I would push back on his thesis. Because honesty is not necessary if happiness is simply an illusion. What matters is that we “feel” happy, not that this happiness reflects something true about our world and about ourselves. The science that informs Pasricha can be helpful and meaningful in terms of locating truth, to be sure (as in, if we do this there is a greater likelihood of this outcome, for example), but without a clear meta-narrative it remains both unnecessary, contextualized, limiting, and illusionary in nature. It is merely truth then to be used for the manipulation of our brains so as to perceive and experience this world as better than reality demonstrates it to be. And we do so either for self motivating purposes, species survival, and/or for determintive naturally derived aims. 

Which gets at the heart of my own disorienting response to the book and the podcast this week. Pasricha’s work can be extremely helpful in a world that has been burdened and bogged down by the modern experiment for far too long. Many emergent writings are now dealing with the widespread problem of disenchantment. But it is helpful in so far as it can show the inner workings of a life that appears to orient us towards something greater than ourselves. This is why the “ends” matters. This is where Pasricha’s philosophy of happiness falls short. It hinges on a future that has an end that is shaky and inconsistent at best and outright lie at worst, and presents us with a vision of happiness that at one in the same time notes the damaging nature of competition and success oriented thinking while pushing us straight back into this equation as the ultimate goal. It’s no wonder disillusionment is so easy to come by. It is caught between the desire and the need to do away with desire. It is caught between the self made individual and the need to do away with illusions of the self. Which, its worth noting, is a long standing interest of philosophy. It depends on, as much of the science would show, memory weaving past and present into a self constructing narrative that then can imagine a future that we inherently distrust when faced with reality. In this sense, and what Pasricha would have to contend with for the science to really hold weight, what ultimately matters is not our present happiness but rather our ability to weave past experiences into a memory that says something different about our stories when looking back than we once thought. This is the metanarrative he employs. We create these illusions in order to be happy, and this follows us to our graves not based on what is “real” and “true” in a scientific sense, but rather on an experiential or feeling sense of what we want our life to be.

Peterson suggsets that for praise to emerge honestly it needs to contend with a hope filled present that enables us with a vision for the future that does not depend on our own ability to construct it. For him, the Biblical story imagines this by God being present now. God does not say “I will make all things new” but “I am making all things new”. This is why the claim of being the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, is so crucial to this definition of hope. In the ancient world this would have been spoken into an understanding of hypostasis (that God can be multiple things at once) that represents God as both possibly limited and unlimited in God’s nature all at once (see The Lord of Spirit’s podcast episode, According to the Order of Melchizedek for a good discussion of this). To speak of Yahweh using trinitarian type language is revelatory precisely because of the way it both contains God’s nature in a singular and limiting sense and in the way it then anchors God’s nature as a defining Truth where, as Peterson puts it, “the whole of time is his.” Beginning here indicates the “source and origin- the basic substratum underlying all things” rather than the idea of first and last, which presents us with a vision of reality where “every day is a new day for God, creation, and redemption.” In a poignant, added note Peterson adds that “it is  only our blindness and sloth that keep us from seeing that openness in it.” (page 13 Hallelujah Banquet). Revelation, Peterson contends, has told us something about the future in that “it has taken the same gospel of Jesus Christ- that God is present with us to bring us to new life, to support us, to fulfill us- and applied it to the future. There is no different Gospel for the future than for the present or the past.” (page 12, This Hallelujah Banquet). In this sense Yahweh (or the Divine) is also distinguished in the ancient world from the creation (the sun, the moon the stars for example), so as to declare God’s presence within it.

So where does Peterson reorient my disoriented state of mind? I think he gets at a crucial part of what faith in the future, crucial to happiness, is and what it demonstrates. Happiness is not contingent on our success, nor is it relegated to simply a process of manipulating our illusions of reality so as to make us happier (welcome to the resurgance of interest in drugs and psychotics that can do this job for us). Rather, it is contingent on our growing awareness of truth itself. It sees endings as perpetual beginnings, but weaves this in light of a given meta-narrative that is constantly sweeping us up into a lager story of the Divine-Human-Creation relationship. Happiness therefore is not a feeling but a state of being in relationship to God and others. A state of increased knowing. This is the only way it can truly be detached from the competitive nature of success and our mutual natures. It is neither a loss of self nor the doing away with desire, rather it recognizes that self and desire have both true and false dseignations, and that this is made aware in relaltionship to another. And ultimately, the way to avoid finding happiness in our own image, or in basing our happiness on others, is to find our True identity in relationship to God/the Divine, which has the power to declare the Truth of our being, of reality, to be universally present, true, real and timeless. We are then free to step into Pasricha’s work and see it as offering glimpses of this Truth in its creative and responsive expression, indicatations that breathe their scientific observations into our reality in a way that then can shape us towards greater knowledge of self and God (or the Divine). This is how true hope can be made aware in our lives in a way that is not simply a part of a self constructing, self making endeavor with our happiness or success as its ultimate end. But rather a hope that sees in these endings of what we were the constant and ever unfolding story of new beginnings, the hope of who we are becoming in the pattern of God’s creative purposes and in light of the Divine image in which we find ourselves. This is where praise, or happiness, emerges as a state of being. This is where it emerges as a motivating aim. This is where it emerges with the potential for spiritual growth rather than success. This is where it emerges as hope.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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