Why Do We Long for Happiness? (Chapter 1 of Happiness by Randy Alcorn)

The Shawshank Redemption contains a poignant scene in which a prisoner, Andy, locks himself into a restricted area and plays a record featuring opera singers.

Beautiful music pours through the public address system while prisoners and guards stare upward, transfixed.

Another prisoner, Red, played by Morgan Freeman, narrates:

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. . . . I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.1

The music liberated those prisoners, stirring feelings of a better reality and instilling hope that true beauty exists. We, too, though we live in a fallen world, dare to hope for a transcendent happiness that’s out there . . . somewhere.

The feverish pursuit of happiness in our culture might lead us to believe it’s a passing fad, the worldview equivalent of bell-bottoms or Beanie Babies. Not so. The desire for happiness isn’t, as many misrepresent it, the child of modern self-obsession. The thirst for happiness is deeply embedded both in God’s Word and in every human culture.

Timothy Keller says, “While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”2

My ache for something greater began in childhood.

HappinessThere’s a cartoon that makes a profound statement about happiness. The first panel shows happy schoolchildren entering a street-level subway station—laughing, playing, tossing their hats in the air. The next panel shows middle-aged adults emerging from the station looking like zombies—dull, joyless, unenthusiastic.

A study indicates that children laugh an average of four hundred times daily, adults only fifteen.3 So what happens between childhood and maturity that damages our capacity for happiness?

I have some fond memories of my childhood and the idealistic dreams of my early life. But by the time I was a teenager, I was disillusioned and empty—though most who knew me wouldn’t have guessed.

I grew up knowing almost nothing of Jesus, God, the gospel, the Bible, and the church. My father owned taverns and operated Alcorn Amusements, which supplied and serviced game machines for taverns. Before computers and video games, I grew up in a home filled with foosball and pool tables, pinball and bowling machines. I even had two jukeboxes in my bedroom. (My house was a popular place for my friends to hang out!) These amusement machines were designed to make people happy . . . yet nobody in my family was happy. This was a second marriage for both my parents. Every time Dad came home drunk and he and Mom yelled at each other, I lay in bed wondering whether this fight would end in divorce.

In junior high I got good grades, won awards, played quarterback, and was named team captain and student body president, but I wasn’t happy. I had brief tastes of happiness, but I spent far more time seeking happiness and longing for it than experiencing it. I bought comic books by the hundreds, subscribed to fantasy and science fiction magazines, and spent nights gazing through my telescope, pondering the universe.

The night sky filled me with awe—and a small taste of happiness. I yearned for something bigger than myself. (Since I knew nothing of God, aliens were the primary candidates.) One unforgettable night, I gazed at the great galaxy of Andromeda, 2.5 million light-years away, with its trillion stars. I longed to explore it someday, to lose myself in its immensity.

But my wonder was trumped by an unbearable sense of loneliness and separation. I wept because I felt so incredibly small. Unknown to me, God was using the marvels of his universe to draw me to himself. Through God’s creation, I was seeing “his invisible attributes . . . his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20).

That gnawing emptiness grew until eventually I set the telescope aside. If the universe had meaning—if I had meaning—I had no clue what it was.

Sometimes I’d sit on my bed for hours, staring into the jukebox, immersed in the sounds of the ’60s. I felt a sense of urgency listening to John Lennon sing “Help!” As I sang the words, “I need somebody,” I didn’t realize that “somebody” was Jesus.

I later learned that at the height of his success, Lennon wrote a personal letter to an evangelist. After quoting a line from a Beatles song, “Money can’t buy me love,” he said, “It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness. I don’t want to keep on with drugs. . . . Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”4 Lennon knew he didn’t have what philosophers and theologians have long claimed we all want—happiness.

As for me, I looked for ways to fill that hungry void, but unhappiness and loneliness prevailed. I found distraction, but never fulfillment.

When I first read the Bible, it was new, intriguing, and utterly disorienting. I opened it and discovered these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Then I read the greatest understatement ever: “He made the stars also” (Genesis 1:16, KJV). Countless stars in a universe one hundred billion light-years across are a mere add-on: “also.”

I realized that this book was about a person who made the universe, including Andromeda and Earth—and me.

Because I had no reference points when I read the Bible, it wasn’t just Leviticus that confused me. But when I reached the Gospels, something changed. I was fascinated by Jesus. Everything about him had the ring of truth, and soon I came to believe he was real. Then, by a miracle of grace, he transformed me.

This life change was characterized by many factors, but the single most noticeable difference was my newfound happiness. My father, enraged that I’d turned to a belief he disdained, predicted I would “outgrow” my conversion. I’m grateful that forty-five years later, I haven’t. (I’m also grateful that at age eighty-five, my dad trusted Christ.) Like most of us, I’ve experienced suffering and heartaches. Still, I regularly find happiness in the one who reached out to me with his grace decades ago—and continues to do so every day.

Though I live in a world that sells false happiness at newsstands, websites, and big-box stores, I thank God for authentic happiness in Jesus.

Seeking happiness is as natural as breathing.

Augustine, considered by many the most influential theologian in church history, wrote 1,600 years ago, “Every man, whatsoever his condition, desires to be happy.”5

In the fourth century AD, Augustine asked, “For who wishes anything for any other reason than that he may become happy?”6 He also said, “There is no man who does not desire this, and each one desires it with such earnestness that he prefers it to all other things; whoever, in fact, desires other things, desires them for this end alone.”7

(I will quote many sources here to demonstrate that this view of happiness isn’t a narrowly held belief but a consensus throughout church history.)

Nearly 1,300 years after Augustine, the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) wrote, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception.”8

Pascal’s contemporary, English Puritan Thomas Manton (1620–1677), said, “It is as natural for the reasonable creature to desire to be happy, as it is for the fire to burn.” Manton followed with the bad news: “But we do not make a right choice of the means that may bring us to that happiness that we desire.” He went on to say that human beings “choose means quite contrary to happiness.”9

English theologian Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) echoed this sentiment: “Happiness being by all men desirable, the desire of it is naturally engrafted in every man; and is the centre of all the searchings of his heart and turnings of his life.”10

In 1639, Puritan Robert Crofts wrote, “All men naturally desire happiness. All their plots, purposes, and endeavors aim at this end only.”11

Scottish churchman Thomas Boston (1676–1732) said, “Consider what man is. He is a creature that desires happiness, and cannot but desire it. The desire of happiness is woven into his nature, and cannot be eradicated. It is as natural for him to desire it as it is to breathe.”12 Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) said, “There is no man upon the earth who isn’t earnestly seeking after happiness, and it appears abundantly by the variety of ways they so vigorously seek it; they will twist and turn every way, ply all instruments, to make themselves happy men.”13

Evangelist George Whitefield (1714–1770) said, “Is it the end of religion to make men happy, and is it not every one’s privilege to be as happy as he can?”14 Whitefield asked an audience, “Does [Jesus] want your heart only for the same end as the devil does, to make you miserable? No, he only wants you to believe on him, that you might be saved. This, this, is all the dear Savior desires, to make you happy, that you may leave your sins, to sit down eternally with him.”15

None of these men of God had an argument against happiness-seeking. Their message was simply that true happiness could be found only in Christ.

If we don’t understand what these figures from church history knew, we’ll imagine that we have a choice whether or not we want to pursue happiness. In fact, we don’t. Seeking happiness is a given—a universal constant. It’s present in every person of every age, era, and circumstance. So it’s entirely unrealistic and counterproductive for Christians to tell people they shouldn’t want to be happy. They can’t help it!

Any pastor who tries to motivate people to stop seeking happiness, any parent who tries to make his or her child repent of being motivated by happiness, is fighting a losing battle. Neither will succeed, and both will do damage by distancing the gospel from the happiness everyone craves.

What if we want to be happy not because we’re sinners but because we’re humans?

Based on the books I’ve read, the sermons I’ve heard, and the conversations I’ve had, I’m convinced that many Christians believe our desire for happiness was birthed in human-kind’s fall.

But what if our desire for happiness comes from God? What if he wired his image bearers for happiness before sin entered the world? How might this perspective change our approach to life, parenting, church, ministry, business, sports, and entertainment?

Augustine asked rhetorically, “Is not a happy life the thing that all desire, and is there any one who altogether desires it not?” Then he added a critical question: “But where did they acquire the knowledge of it, that they so desire it? Where have they seen it, that they so love it?”16

Not only has God written his law on our hearts (see Romans 2:15); he has written a love of happiness on them.

Blaise Pascal, who said that “all men seek happiness,” wrote these words in his collection of thoughts on theology:

What else does this longing and helplessness proclaim, but that there was once in each person a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? We try to fill this in vain with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are there. Yet none can change things, because this infinite abyss can only be filled with something that is infinite and unchanging—in other words, by God himself. God alone is our true good.17

In other words, the Fall didn’t generate the human longing for happiness—it derailed and misdirected it.

Scripture portrays our connection to the sin of Adam in a way that transcends time—as if we were there in Eden with him (see Romans 5:12-21). Similarly, I believe we inherited from our Eden-dwelling ancestors a sense of their pre-Fall happiness. This explains why our hearts refuse to settle for sin and suffering and we long for something better.

Were we merely the product of natural selection and survival of the fittest, we’d have no grounds for believing any ancient happiness existed. But even those who have never been taught about the Fall and the Curse intuitively know that something is seriously wrong.

Why else would we long for happiness and sense what a utopian society should look like even if we’ve never seen one? We are nostalgic for an Eden we’ve only seen hints of. Medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) lamented humanity’s fall and the loss of the happiness that comes from knowing God: “O wretched lot of man, when he hath lost that for which he was made! . . . He has lost the blessedness [happiness] for which he was made, and has found the misery for which he was not made.”18

Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) wrote, “Happiness is what all mankind want to obtain—the desire for it is deeply planted in the human heart.”19

If this desire is “deeply planted” in our hearts, who planted it? Our answer to that question will dramatically affect the way we see the world. Did Adam and Eve want to be happy before they sinned? Did they enjoy the food God provided because it tasted sweet? Did they sit in the sun because it felt warm and jump into the water because it felt refreshing? If we believe God is happy (a topic we’ll explore in part 2), then wouldn’t he make us with the desire and capacity to be happy?

Christ-followers say things like, “God wants you blessed, not happy”;20 “God doesn’t want you to be happy. God wants you to be holy”;21 and “God doesn’t want you to be happy, he wants you to be strong.”22 But does the message that God doesn’t want us to be happy promote the Good News or obscure it?

When we separate God from happiness and from our longing for happiness, we undermine the Christian worldview. We might as well say, “Stop breathing and eating; instead, worship God.” People must breathe and eat and desire happiness—and they can worship God as they do so!

Putting God on the side of holiness and Satan on the side of happiness is a dangerous maneuver.

The devil has mastered this strategy. His lie from the beginning was that God doesn’t care about our good. The truth is, God wants us to seek real happiness in him, while Satan wants us to seek imitation holiness stemming from our self-congratulatory pride. The Pharisees had a passionate desire to be holy on their own terms. Christ’s response? “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44).

Satan hates God, he hates us, and he hates happiness as much as he hates holiness— God’s and ours. He isn’t happy and has no happiness to give. He dispenses rat poison in colorful, happy-looking wrappers. The devil has no power to implant in us a desire for happiness. Satan is not about happiness; he is about sin and misery, which come from seeking happiness where it can’t be found. God is the one who planted our desire for happiness.

Baptist pastor and professor John Broadus (1827–1895) put it this way:

The minister may lawfully appeal to the desire for happiness and its negative counterpart, the dread of unhappiness. Those philosophers who insist that we ought always to do right simply and only because it is right are not philosophers at all, for they are either grossly ignorant of human nature or else indulging in mere fanciful speculations.23

The modern evangelical antipathy to happiness backfires when it portrays Christianity as being against what people long for most. (True, we chronically seek happiness in sin, but the core problem isn’t seeking happiness but choosing sin instead of God.)

Few find the lasting happiness they crave.

Anselm wrote what seems tragically obvious: “Not everyone who has the will for happiness has happiness.”24 Adam and Eve fell away from God and happiness because of their disobedience. However, they never lost their desire to be happy.

Why are many people so unhappy? Pascal suggested, “Who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king?”25

Because we were made for greatness, the world’s superficiality is unsatisfying. We sense that unhappiness is abnormal, and we ache for someone, somehow, to bring us lasting happiness. That someone is Jesus, and that somehow is his redemptive work.

A. W. Tozer (1897–1963) said, “Man is bored, because he is too big to be happy with that which sin is giving him.”26

As Adam and Eve’s descendants, we inherited their separation from God, and therefore from happiness. Ages later, we retain a profound awareness that we were once happy— and that we should be happy.

This compelling desire for genuine happiness, while at times painful, is God’s grace to us. Longing for the happiness humankind once knew, we can be drawn toward true happiness in Christ, which is offered us in the gospel.

God used my persistent desire for happiness to prepare me for the gospel message. The “good news of great joy” in Christ was exactly the cool water my thirsty young soul craved.

The gospel is good news only to those who know they need it. Had I been happy without Jesus, I never would have turned to him.

Learn more in Randy's book Happiness.

The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994).

2 Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 31.

3 Mary Roach, “Can You Laugh Your Stress Away?” Health 10, no. 5 (September 1996): 92.

4 Steve Turner, The Gospel according to the Beatles (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2006), 187–88.

5 Thomas A. Hand, St. Augustine on Prayer (South Bend, IN: Newman Press, 1963), 1.

6 Augustine, “Concerning Felicity,” The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods, book 4.

7 Hand, St. Augustine on Prayer, chapter 1.

8 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, number 425.

9 Thomas Manton, “Twenty Sermons on Important Passages of Scripture,” The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 2.

10 Richard Sibbes, “A Breathing after God,” The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, vol. 2.

11 Robert Crofts, The Terrestriall Paradise, or, Happinesse on Earth.

12 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Mr. Thomas Boston, vol. 1.

13 Jonathan Edwards, “Christian Happiness,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses, 1720–1723, vol. 10.

14 Jonathan Edwards, “Christian Happiness,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses, 1720–1723, vol. 10.

15 George Whitefield, “The Folly and Danger of Parting with Christ for the Pleasures and Profits of Life,” Selected Sermons of George Whitefield.

16 Augustine, “We Should Not Seek for God and the Happy Life Unless We Had Known It,” The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. J. G. Pilkington.

17 Pascal, Pensées, number 425.

18 Patrick J. Geary, ed., Readings in Medieval History, vol. 2, 4th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 330.

19 J. C. Ryle, Happiness: The Secret of Happiness as Found in the Bible (Cedar Lake, MI: Waymark Books, 2011), 7.

20 Anugrah Kumar, “LifeChurch.tv Pastor Craig Groeschel Says God Doesn’t Want You Happy,” Christian Post, February 9, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/lifechurch-tv-pastor-craig-groeschel-says-god-doesnt-want-you-happy-133795/.

21 David P. Gushee and Robert H. Long, A Bolder Pulpit: Reclaiming the Moral Dimension of Preaching (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998), 194.

22 Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 243.

23 John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4th ed., rev. by Vernon L. Stanfield (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 117.

24 Thomas Williams, ed., Anselm: Basic Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), 392.

25 Pascal, Pensées, number 409.

26 A. W. Tozer, Who Put Jesus on the Cross? (Camp Hill, PA: WingSpread, 2009), e-book.

Photo by ORNELLA BINNI on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries