Over the past two decades researchers have found increasing concentrations of industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies. Research in Europe and the United States indicates that most urban and rural drinking water sources contain measurable levels of antibiotics, steroids, detergents, pesticides, analgesics and psychiatric medications. One class of compounds found in the highest concentrations is prescription anti-depressants. It seems that the old song’s advice, “Don’t worry; be happy” is no longer a suggestion but a description of everyone’s mood – like it or not.
Is happiness merely a response to chemistry? Alternately, is it the result of a decision to have fun at a holiday party or other, similar situation? Happiness seems to be defined as behavior that would be inappropriate at most times. Is happiness an alternative to the normal routine of life?
There is a movie titled, “The Big Short” playing currently in theaters. It depicts actual events that occurred to four stock market speculators during the mortgage bubble in 2008. These four investors foresaw the consequences of rising home values, rising mortgage debt and stagnated salaries. They decided to bet against the market. They won big, making huge profits from the collapse of the debt markets. Then, they began to have second-thoughts. They had based their careers on the belief that the equities markets were self-regulating. When they realized that everyone, including themselves, was badly mistaken, they began to regret their actions. Those men, today, are haunted by the events that made them wealthy.
Our culture tells us to follow our bliss, to find happiness, but there is an unavoidable limitation to our capacity to do so. Human intellect is a miraculous gift. It gives us the ability to reason, create and love, but it is fallible. The things we judge to be good for our individual lives are not always good for others. The consequences of our limitations are evident everywhere; the violence and injustice in our world is clear testimony to the human mind’s inability to judge accurately what leads to lasting happiness.
There is, however, an alternative to relying on our own capricious judgments about happiness. Today’s first reading says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior, who will rejoice over you with gladness.” (Zephaniah 3:17) The Scriptures say that true and lasting happiness is not something we find; rather, it is something that finds us. What sort of life would make the Lord rejoice over us? If we could describe that life we might be able to make judgments about happiness that would be much more reliable than trusting simplistically in the things that bring us brief pleasure.
The Scriptures offer clear guidance about living a life that brings lasting joy. Luke’s Gospel says, “the people were filled with expectation.” (Luke 3:15) These people experienced joy, not as a possession or personal accomplishment, but as something not yet fulfilled. That hopeful expectation, the “something not yet fulfilled,” was the palpable experience of God’s proximity in the preaching of John the baptizer.
John instructed the people to allow God to make a straight path to their hearts. (Luke 3:3-6) He told them to treat one another fairly and with humility. (Luke 3:11-14) Finally, he foretold the coming of the One who would bring irrevocable reconciliation to those who believe. (Luke 3:16) These three instructions describe a life that causes God to rejoice: repentance, justice, reconciliation.
The Scriptures say that to be found by God we have to be in the right place, known to the right people and living the right life. Our cultural images of happiness are finite objects; the hopeful expectation created by proximity to God is more than merely finite and temporal. Compared to defining happiness as something based on chemistry or temporary measures, this seems much more worthy of our trust. “Be glad and exult with all your heart, . . . the Lord, your God, is in your midst.” (Zephaniah 3:14,17)