I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Sampson’s article in the LICC Newsletter:
The overarching goal in contemporary western society, at an individual and national level, is happiness.
To exchange the word ‘happiness’ for the phrase ‘well-being’ is to uncover the underlying purpose behind most current conversations in public policy, the third sector, and even the business community. Even David Cameron has argued that we need GWB (General Well-Being) to be our focus instead of GDP, as not everything that is important can be measured financially.
Cameron is surely right. However, the reason why society has been pursuing growth in GDP is that, until very recently, we were convinced such growth would make us happier. The moral argument behind our obsession with increase in wealth has been a deep-rooted sense that ‘more is better’.
This obsession has been challenged by a number of factors – the economic crisis, environmental destruction, the ‘epidemic’ of obesity, and particularly the mountains of research which has revealed that while GDP has dramatically increased in the last 30 years, we have not been getting happier. Happiness is still the goal, but there is a growing realisation that the path we are on will not get us there.
In many ways, the emerging public conversation brings with it a more generous approach to religion. ‘Well-being’ as a concept certainly can in theory acknowledge the important place of religion in society, at least much more than a purely financial metric. Though this shift should be cautiously welcomed, one of the key contributions that Christian thought and practice can make is to call into question the dominant assumption that happiness is the goal. The crucial conversation is not about means (how we get there) but about ends (what we should be aiming for).
The church’s prophetic witness is to testify to our true ‘end’, memorably summed up in the Westminster Catechism – ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever’. Happiness – or the richer word ‘joy’ – is found in and through God, partially in this life and fully in the life to come. In the words of Augustine, ‘God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’
To pursue happiness as an end in itself is to condemn oneself to a life without rest. It is a life in the image of Wile E. Coyote in his never-ending pursuit of the Road Runner – always chasing, but never catching.