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The Lost Virtue of Happiness

J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler (NavPress: Jan. 17, 2006), 224 pages.

Starting from the American "pursuit of happiness," Moreland (a philosophy professor at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University) and Issler (a Christian education and theology professor, also at Talbot) connect with a widely felt desire. Yet they immediately take readers into deeper reflection of the very content of the happiness we pursue, arguing that our consumerist culture has replaced the more satisfying content of true happiness with a poor substitute. Moving smoothly into a discussion of discipleship, they focus on spiritual disciplines as the key to true happiness in life. Subsequent chapters explore how the spiritual disciplines can be used to improve many areas of our lives–emotions, thoughts, risk taking and the development of a more mature faith during difficult times. They end with a convincing chapter on the importance of spiritual friendships. Although exploring some deep topics, this will still be accessible to most readers and very useful for study groups, particularly with the excellent discussion questions at the end of each chapter. The practical suggestions and creative exercises throughout will be particularly helpful for those new to spiritual disciplines. ~ Publishers Weekly

Chapter One



I (J. P.) don’t mean that we’re not active, involved with friends, busy at work. I don’t mean that we’re not spending time with family, meeting with coworkers at Starbucks, aware of what’s new on television and in the theaters. We stay current with popular culture-the trendsetters, the movers and shakers, the media idols of our age.

But they are not teaching us how to live life. Not even close. Most of what takes up the airwaves is the absence of life-a constant reshuffling of relationships, a preoccupation with wiping out the opposition as violently as possible, the pursuit and spending of the almighty dollar in a system that Vaclav Havel calls "totalitarian consumerism." We see
example after example of empty, self-centered existence.

We also don’t know how to teach our kids about living life. We expect them to figure it out on their own, to sort of fall into it. We expect them to learn life from their peers.

If we are going to recover real life-the life that has been sucked out of us by technological gadgetry, vivid media images, and our passive kind of continuing education via sitcoms and advertising-we are going to have to return to the wisdom of the ancients.

The key to living life is paradox.
One of the most important paradoxes comes from the mouth of Jesus: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:25). That’s a mouthful. Our aim in this book is to unpack the paradoxes for living true life and to begin to get good at it. If we do, we will also influence our kids. They will pick up a different set of values than what comes at them five hours a day over the tube.

Real life does not come naturally. It is
counterintuitive. It is a skill we have to learn. That’s because the
way to real life is not something we get, but something we give. And
here is another paradox: We can’t get the life we want by direct
effort. We will need to learn spiritual disciplines that are, in the
words of Dallas Willard, "activities that are in our power that enable
us to do what we cannot do by direct effort." That’s another
mouthful-but that’s what Klaus and I want to unpack in this book.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Do you want to be happy? If you are an American, it is overwhelmingly
likely that you do. We Americans are obsessed with being happy. But we
are also terribly confused about what happiness is. As a result, we
seldom find a happiness that lasts. But because "the pursuit of
happiness" is promised to us as a right in the founding document of our
nation, the Declaration of Independence, we carry a sense of
entitlement. We think we deserve happiness. And if we don’t find what
we consider to be happiness, we are likely to develop what the French
demographer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, called "a strange
melancholy in the midst of abundance."

Our understanding of
happiness has not always been so confused. Since the time of the
ancients (the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the Hebrew
figures Moses and Solomon), right up through the church fathers (such
as Augustine), and on through the Reformation, until around the 1700s
in Britain-almost everyone agreed about what happiness was. When the
Declaration of Independence says we have a right to the pursuit of
happiness, the authors meant what almost everyone had meant prior to
that time.

The Founding Fathers looked to the
eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone for wisdom about
where happiness comes from. He wrote, "[The Creator] has so intimately
connected, so inseparably woven, the laws of eternal justice with the
happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by
observing the former; and if the former be punctually obeyed, it can
not but induce the latter." Though Blackstone’s language is archaic, he
meant the same thing that C. S. Lewis intended when he wrote, "You
can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second
things only by putting first things first." Or as Jesus said, "Seek
first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be
given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).

We will look more closely at what the earlier writers meant by happiness
in a moment. But first let’s think about what has happened in the past
hundred years or so, because the shift in meaning is destroying
people’s lives.

A recent dictionary definition of happiness is
"a sense of pleasurable satisfaction." Notice that happiness is
identified with a feeling and, more specifically, a feeling very close
to pleasure. Today the good life is a life of good feeling, and that is
the goal of most people for themselves and their children. A major
talk-radio host has interviewed hundreds of people over the past few
years by asking the question "What did your parents want most for
you-success, wealth, to be a good person, or happiness?" Eighty-five
percent said happiness.

When my daughter’s eighth-grade team
was being creamed in a soccer game, the coach said at halftime, "Girls,
don’t worry about the score. The reason we play soccer is to have fun;
so let’s try to have a blast during the second half and go home happy
whatever the final result." That coach reminds me of Cyndi Lauper’s
song "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." He was mindlessly parroting the
cultural mantra that pleasurable satisfaction is the goal of life. The
reasons my wife and I wanted our daughter to play soccer were to learn
how to win and to lose, to cooperate with others, to sacrifice for a
longterm goal, which requires delaying instant gratification, and-well,
you get the picture. What was really sad was not simply the coach’s
speech, but the fact that none of the parents so much as batted an eye
at his counsel.

So what, you may be asking, is so wrong with
happiness understood as a sense of pleasurable satisfaction or fun? In
one sense, nothing. All things being equal, I would rather have fun
than not have fun. But in another sense, everything. There are two main
problems with this understanding. First, it represents a serious
departure from a more ageless definition. When the classical
under-standing is clarified, as I will attempt in the next section,
pleasurable satisfaction is exposed as inferior in value to happiness
by its classical definition.

In a consumer culture,
advertisers have a vested interest in creating in us a constant sense
of dissatisfaction so we will buy products to regain happiness and
satisfaction. This makes life a roller coaster and creates an
insatiable need to be filled with pleasure. It creates too much
pressure for anyone to bear. Among other things, it implies that the
hard virtues of discipline, sacrifice, and their kin are intrinsically

Further, happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it
according to the contemporary sense of the word. If you have ever tried
to be happy, you know this is true. Pleasurable satisfaction makes a
very poor lifetime goal; it is, however, a wonderful by-product of
striving after happiness in the classical sense. Think about it. If
happiness is having an internal feeling of fun or pleasurable
satisfaction, and if it is our main goal, where will we place our focus
all day long? The focus will be on us, and the result will be a culture
of self-absorbed individuals who can’t live for something larger than
we are. As parents, we will then view our children as a means to our
own happiness. Marriage, work, and even God himself will exist as a
means to making us happy. The entire universe will revolve around our
internal pleasure-me!

What I am saying is no mere theoretical
assertion. Since the 1960s, for the first time in history a
culture-ours-has been filled with what have been called empty selves.
The empty self is now an epidemic in America (and in much of Western
cultures). According to Philip Cushman, "The empty self is filled up
with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic
partners, and empathetic therapists…. [The empty self] experiences a
significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning, … a
lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as
a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger." Popular teenage culture
provides a clear example of a social system that produces and contains
an abundance of empty selves. Sadly, the traits of the empty self do
not leave at the age of twenty; studies show that they continue until
around forty and, increasingly, last longer than that.

empty self has a set of values, motives, and habits of thought,
feeling, and behavior that make progress in maturity in the Way of
Christ extremely difficult. Following are four traits of the empty self
that undermine intellectual growth and spiritual development. As you
read them, keep in mind that these result from redefining happiness as
pleasurable satisfaction and making it the main, longterm goal of life.
Perhaps you’ll be able to recognize some of these characteristics in
people you come into contact with. (You might even see a few reflected
in your own life.) As you note these traits, see if you agree about how
harmful they are.

1. The empty self is inordinately individualistic.
A few years ago, I was sitting in an elementary school gym with other
parents at a D.A.R.E. graduation (a public school program designed to
help children "say no to drugs") for my daughter’s sixth-grade class.
Five sixth graders were about to read brief papers expressing their
reasons for why they would say no to drugs. As it turned out, each
paper was a variation of one reason for refusing to take drugs:
self-interest. Student after student said that he or she would refuse
drugs because of a desire to stay healthy, become a doctor or athlete,
or do well in school. Conspicuous by its absence was the moral factor:
not a single reference to duty to community or virtue before God. Not
one student said that drugs were anathema because of the shame it would
bring to family, community, or God. Individualistic reasons were the
only ones given. By contrast, when a Japanese ice skater fell during an
Olympic performance years ago, her main concern was not the endorsement
opportunities she had lost. She felt bad for her family and the people
who supported her so faithfully. Community loomed large in the way she
understood her own self.

A healthy form of individualism is a
good thing. But the empty self that populates American culture is a
self-contained individual who defines his own life goals, values, and
interests as though he were a human atom, isolated from others with
little need or responsibility to live for the concerns of his broader
community. The self-contained individual does his own thing and seeks
to create meaning by looking within his own self. But as psychologist
Martin Seligman warns, "The self is a very poor site for finding

2. The empty self is infantile. It is
widely recognized that adolescent personality traits are staying with
people longer today than in earlier generations, sometimes continuing
to manifest themselves into the late thirties. Created by a culture
filled with pop psychology, schools, and media that usurp parental
authority, and television ads that seem to treat everyone as a
teenager, the infantile part of the empty self needs instant
gratification, comfort, and soothing. The infantile person is
controlled by cravings and constantly seeks to be filled with and made
whole by food, entertainment, and consumer goods. Such a person is
preoccupied with sex, physical appearance, and body image. He or she
tends to live by feelings and experiences. For the infantile
personality type, pain, endurance, hard work, and delayed gratification
are anathema. Pleasure is all that matters, and it had better be
immediate. Boredom is the greatest evil; amusement, the greatest good.

3. The empty self is narcissistic.
Narcissism is an inordinate and exclusive sense of self-infatuation in
which the individual is preoccupied with his or her self-interest and
personal fulfillment. Narcissists manipulate relationships with others
(including God) to validate their self-esteem, and they cannot sustain
deep attachments or make personal commitments to something larger than
ego. The narcissist is superficial and aloof, and prefers to "play it
cool" and "keep my options open." Self-denial is out of the question.

The Christian narcissist brings a Copernican revolution to the
Christian faith. Historically, Copernicus dethroned the earth from the
center of the universe and put the sun in its place. Spiritually, the
narcissist dethrones God and His purposes in history from the center of
the religious life and places his or her personal fulfillment in the
middle. The Christian narcissist evaluates the local church, books, and
religious practices based on how they will further his or her agenda.
The church becomes a means of fulfilling personal needs. God becomes
another tool in a bag of tricks, along with the narcissist’s car,
workouts at the fitness center, and so on, which exist as mere
instruments to facilitate a life defined independently of a biblical

The narcissist sees education solely as a means to
the enhancement of his or her career. The humanities and general
education, which historically were part of a university curriculum to
help develop people with the intellectual and moral virtues necessary
for a life directed at the common good, just don’t fit into the
narcissist’s plans. As Christopher Lasch notes, "[Narcissistic]
students object to the introduction of requirements in general
education because the work demands too much of them and seldom leads to
lucrative employment."

4. The empty self is passive.
The couch potato is the role model for the empty self, and there can be
no doubt that Americans are becoming increasingly passive in their
approach to life. We let other people do our living and thinking for
us: The pastor studies the Bible for us, the news media does our
political thinking for us, and we let our favorite sports team
exercise, struggle, and win for us. From watching television to
listening to sermons, our primary agenda is to be amused and
entertained. Holidays have become vacations. Historically, a holiday
was a "holy day," an intrinsically valuable, special, active change of
pace in which, through proactive play and recreation, you refreshed
your soul. A vacation is a "vacating"-even the language is passive-in
order to let someone else amuse you. The passive individual is a self
in search of pleasure and consumer goods provided by others. Such an
individual increasingly becomes a shriveled self with less and less
ability to be proactive and take control of life.

When people
live for pleasurable satisfaction, they become empty selves and,
because God did not make us to live for "happiness," our lives fall
apart. Seligman has spent his career studying happiness. In the late
1980s, he noted that with the baby boom generation, Americans
experienced a tenfold increase in depression compared to earlier
generations. If any condition increases this much in the span of one
generation, we are safe to say an epidemic has occurred. A cause and
cure must be sought. To our knowledge, Seligman is not a Christian, but
his insights read as if they came from Holy Scripture. He claimed that
the cause of this epidemic was the fact that baby boomers stopped
imitating their ancestors and seeking daily to live for a cause bigger
than they-God, family, one’s country-and instead spent from morning to
night trying to live for themselves and their own pleasurable
satisfaction. It is clear that such a strategy brings depression, not
pleasure-or much else.