What Makes You Happy

I recently heard a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Stephen Marmer being interviewed about what helps to make people happy. His observations were interesting to me. Dr. Marmer said that in his practice, he noticed that in order to be happy, people needed three things: resilience, gratitude, and a sense of personal responsibility for their own life. What follows is not Dr. Marmer’s thoughts – but my own thoughts on his three ingredients.

Resilience is the ability to get through, get over, integrate life experiences, and thrive after trauma, trials, and tribulations. Resilience is the capacity for recovery and to maintain a positive view of the world even after you have been hurt and tested by difficult circumstances. Resilience is developed in various ways, but one ingredient that helps develop resilience is going through a hard experience and coming out ok on the other side.

Gratitude is being thankful for various parts of your life. It means appreciating the sacrifices others have made, not taking your possessions for granted, and learning to express thankfulness in various ways for the good things that come your way. Gratitude is developed in various ways – but early on in life it helps if someone teaches us to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Gratitude can also be learned when you have had to go without something for a while – and then you feel more thankful because you realize more directly what your life would be like without a particular experience or possessions.

Personal responsibility is not blaming others for your situation in life – feeling a sense of empowerment to create your own future by choices you make today. It means taking responsibility for your finances, your health, your words, your actions, your job, your family, your life – and not blaming others or seeing others as responsible for your life circumstances.

As I heard these three ingredients for happiness explained, they all seemed to make good sense to me. I have always believed that gratitude is one of the most important ingredients for happiness, but also believed that it’s important for people to take responsibility for their lives and develop the ability to overcome challenges. These things are all what help to make a person mature instead of immature.

Yet as I thought more about these ingredients — and then thought about the kind of culture we seem to be creating – I became concerned. As I look around I see various forces at work that tend to undermine the development of resilience, gratitude, and personal responsibility in people’s lives – especially when we look at the messages our culture is sending to our children and young people.

Resilience is undermined when we give the message to young people that they are very fragile and that they must always be protected from hard experiences. The emphasis on “safe spaces” may help to prevent bullying – but it also sends a message that young people are too fragile to be able to handle disagreement and too fragile to recover from being offended by someone else’s words, views, or behavior. The generation of “helicopter parents” has been working for over a decade now to bubble-wrap and insulate their children from all harm – this desire to protect our children is understandable, but it may also be counterproductive since we all know that resilience, strength, and endurance are developed through hard experiences rather than through easy ones.

Gratitude is undermined when our culture gives the message to young people that “you deserve to have a better life than you actually have.” This message comes across in all kinds of ways, but it is rampant in American politics and media. The basic idea is that since you are special you should have a meaningful job and lots of money and a beautiful place to live and you should not have to work too hard for these things. The general word that describes this is “entitlement.” It is the belief that if you don’t have everything you want, then someone has wronged you – and you deserve better. The entitlement message creates people who are resentful and discontent, and it makes it nearly impossible for them to have gratitude. The church has historically been a place that taught people the art of gratitude through the discipline of praising and thanking God in prayers and singing – but church has been undermined in countless ways by the culture so that participation in church is seen as “optional” at best and more often “foolish” by the culture’s elites.

Personal Responsibility is undermined by the message that you are a victim of someone else’s bad behavior. Women are victims of a sexist and patriarchal culture. People with darker skin are victims of white oppression. LGBT people are victims of heterosexist family structures. Poor people are victims of exploitation by the top 1%. Of course there are examples of sexism, racism, anti-LGBT attitudes, and exploitation of various people – but the pervasive message that seems to drive so much of our culture today is that since you are a victim, everyone else is more responsible for your life situation than you are. If you have been nurtured in the school of personal victimhood instead of in the school of personal responsibility, then you will tend to feel that there is nothing you can do to improve your situation – and this is a depressing thought indeed.

Though the job of the church is not so much to make people happy as it is to make them holy – I nevertheless think we have an important role to play in pushing back against the cultural messages that have made it very difficult for young people today to be happy. When it comes to resilience, the church teaches people to “count it joy when you encounter various trials” (James 1) and that suffering helps to produce character in our lives (Romans 5:3). When it comes to gratitude the church teaches people to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16). When it comes to personal responsibility the church teaches that though we are saved by grace – yet each of us will have to stand before God one day and give an account of how we lived our lives (Romans 14:12, Hebrews 4:13, Matthew 25:14ff). Church may seem irrelevant to most people in our culture these days – but that does not mean that we do not have a lot to offer in our troubled world. The Biblical value system that we embrace and proclaim is a strong “antidote” to the despair-inducing messages our culture instills in our young people through so many powerful communication channels.

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As we journey through the Easter season we are thankful that Jesus came so that we might have LIFE and that we might have it abundantly. Let us continue to proclaim his good news to a world that badly needs to hear it.



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