Looking for Real Happiness in a World of Worry

Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and say that you are evil, all because of the Son of Man! Be glad when that happens and dance for joy, because a great reward is kept for you in heaven.—Jesus (Luke 6: 22-23, GNT)

“Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart! and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words—‘Wait and Hope.’”  —Alexandre Dumas

There’s a story of a man and his granddaughter who are sitting on a park bench when a traveler asks, “Is this a friendly town? I come from a town full of conflict. Is that what I’ll find here?”

The grandfather replies, “Yes, my friend, I’m certain that’s what you’ll find.” Saddened, the traveler continues on.

Before long, another traveler stops. “I come from a village with many delightful people. I wonder, would I find such charming people here?”

The grandfather smiles in response. “Welcome, friend! Yes, you certainly will!”

As the stranger walks away, the puzzled child asks, “Grandfather, why did you give those strangers two different answers to the same question?”

The grandfather answered, “The first man was looking for conflict, while the second was looking for goodness. Each will find exactly what he expects.”

We bring ourselves to every situation, every encounter, every relationship. The unhappy person who leaves North Dakota in search of happiness in California finds more sunshine and less snow, but not more happiness. The happy Californian who relocates finds that his happiness accompanies him.

Positive people experience adversity, just as negative people do. Their expectations don’t control circumstances, but they do give perspective. Optimists see more goodness and find redemptive elements even in the bad times. Scripture says, “The hopes of the godly result in happiness, but the expectations of the wicked come to nothing” (Proverbs 10:28, NLT). Likewise, Proverbs 11:23 states, “The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.”

Disneyland claims to be the happiest place on Earth, but according to 60 Minutes, studies show the happiest nation on Earth is Denmark. The United States, despite its greater wealth, ranks twenty-third, and the United Kingdom, forty-first. Denmark’s remarkable secret to topping the happiness chart? Low expectations. The interviews on 60 Minutes demonstrate that Danes have more modest dreams than Americans and they’re less distressed when their hopes don’t materialize. [1]

The general view of life in Denmark is somewhat compatible with the doctrine of the Fall: instead of being surprised when life doesn’t go their way, Danes are grateful that things aren’t worse, and they’re happily surprised by health and success. If they have food, clothing, shelter, friends, and family, life seems good.

There’s a biblical basis for both realistic and positive expectations. We certainly live in a world with suffering and death. But as believers, we understand that God is with us and won’t forsake us, and that one day we’ll live on a redeemed Earth far happier than Denmark or Disneyland on their best days!

Worry is the product of high stakes and low control, coupled with expecting the worst. There’s no greater enemy of happiness. There’s a subtle aspect to worry: if we care, we think we should worry, as if that will help somehow. In fact, worry has absolutely no redemptive value. When good things are happening, we’re worried that bad things will come. When bad things happen, we worry that worse things will come. Jesus asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25, NIV). Nothing is more impotent than worry, and nothing so robs of happiness in Christ.

Just after instructing us to rejoice in the Lord, Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Worry is a killjoy. It specializes in worst-case scenarios—in contrast, God tells his children there is much that should make us rejoice:

  • He has already rescued us from the worst, which is eternal Hell.
  • Even if something terrible happens, he’ll use it for our eternal good.
  • Often bad things don’t happen, and our worry proves groundless.
  • Whether or not bad things happen, our worry generates no positive change.
  • The cause for all our worries—sin and the Curse—is temporary, and will soon be behind us. Forever.

The command to rejoice is not mere pretense or unrealistic expectations or positive thinking. Rather, it’s embracing our present life, which includes suffering. But even before God wipes it all away, he gives us compelling reasons to rejoice.

Jesus emphatically commands us not to worry (Matthew 6:25, 34). But how can we avoid it? A big part of it is adjusting our expectations based on his promises not only that all will be well one day in Heaven, but that he is at work here and now, lovingly accomplishing his purposes in our lives.

Max Lucado tells the story of a boy on the beach who eagerly scoops up and packs sand. Using a plastic shovel and a bright red bucket, he creates a magnificent sand castle. He works all afternoon, creating a tower, walls, and even a moat. Not far away, a man in his office shuffles papers into stacks and delegates assignments. He punches buttons on a phone and keys on a keyboard, makes profits, and builds his own castle.

In both cases, time passes, the tide rises, and the castles are destroyed. But there’s a big difference. The boy expects what’s coming and celebrates it. He’s eager for the waves to hit his castle. He smiles as his castle erodes and turns into no more than formless lumps in the sand. The businessman’s life also ebbs and flows, and the works of his hands are swept away. If his castle isn’t taken from him, he’ll be taken from his castle. But he chooses not to think about this. Unlike the boy, this man is unprepared for what will happen. While the boy has no sorrow and regret, the man does all he can to hold on to his castle and is inconsolable when his life or house or business slips away. [2]

No matter what comes today or tomorrow, may these words from the Lord to his people Israel become our expectation of the life God ultimately intends for all his children: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, CEB).

Father of all happiness, we expect things to go our way, and are quickly disappointed when they don’t. We look so many other places than to you for our contentment. Help us to lower our expectations of a stress-free life while raising our expectations of who you are and the happiness you have for us not only forever, but now. Deliver us from joy-killing worry, and empower us to ground our optimism on the breathtaking eternal realities you’ve promised us in Christ!

Excerpted from Randy Alcorn’s devotional 60 Days of Happiness.

[1] Morley Safer, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” CBS News video, 12:06, from 60 Minutes, June 15, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4181996n

[2] Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 105–6.

Photo: Unsplash

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