Harvard’s Arthur C. Brooks on the secret to happiness

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Harvard’s Arthur C. Brooks on the secret to happiness

September 6, 2023 -

Two young women simle while enjoying coffee at a coffeeshop. By Jacob Lund/stock.adobe.com.

Two young women simle while enjoying coffee at a coffeeshop. By Jacob Lund/stock.adobe.com.

Two young women simle while enjoying coffee at a coffeeshop. By Jacob Lund/stock.adobe.com.

Let’s start with the good news: My internet connection is working this morning. A few hours without it yesterday reminded me of how dependent we all are on something few of us understand.

What exactly is the internet, anyway? Where is it? What does it look like?

It’s become one of those things that we take for granted until it’s not there. And one of those things we think we need to be happy. However, there’s more to the story, as Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks, who specializes in happiness studies, explained in a recent Harvard Business Review interview:

Happiness started to go into a little bit of a malaise, a bit of a decline, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but then it took a real big dip when social media came along.

Social media was catastrophic for happiness. . . . There’s a lot of neuroscience behind this, but everybody knows that when you’re bored or you’re lonely and you start looking at your devices and at your phone, you actually get more bored and you get more lonely. This is a huge problem, especially for young adults.

Then the coronavirus came along, and this was the most catastrophic event for public happiness that we’ve seen in a long time worldwide. Ordinarily, about 30 percent of people would say they’re very happy about their lives, and 15 percent would say they’re not happy. The rest are in the middle. Those are flipped. Now it’s about 30 percent who are not happy and 15 percent who are very happy.

What is the answer? What is the secret to happiness? According to Brooks, “It has everything to do with social life. It has everything to do with our love relationships. We know the habits that bring the happiest life—your philosophical or your faith life, your family life, your real friendships, and work that serves others in person—these have been in decline. When those things go in decline, there’s no tech that’s going to solve the problem.”

There is an underlying narrative here we do well to understand for the sake of our happiness in this world and our rewards in the next.

“You have made summer and winter”

Only God can create ex nihilo: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Now, as the Law of Conservation of Mass reminds us, matter can be neither created nor destroyed.

Consequently, as summer changes to fall, the psalmist’s prayer should be ours: “Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter” (Psalm 74:16–17).

And we should ask ourselves: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Humans create nothing—we are stewards of God’s creation, using what he has made (hopefully) for his glory and our good.

As a created being himself, Satan can likewise only use what God has created. One of his most subtle strategies is to tempt us with the good that competes with the best. Like social media in the place of in-person relationships, he offers us means as ends, knowing that the former cannot fulfill the purpose of the latter.

Consider three examples in the news.

One: Longevity vs. eternal life

Scientists have successfully transferred a gene that enhances health and a longer lifespan. Their experiment with rats and mice could one day work for humans. Long life is obviously valuable, but ultimately as a means to the end of using our days for eternal purposes.

Two: Material vs. spiritual prosperity

America’s middle class is getting its spending power back after suffering through a year and a half of decades-high inflation. Material wealth is obviously valuable, but ultimately as a means to the end of using our resources for spiritual purposes.

Three: Dating vs. marriage

The Atlantic reports that “married people are much happier than the unmarried.” This is not to say that single adults cannot live with meaning and purpose (Jesus is Exhibit A), but to make the point that dating, while obviously valuable, is ultimately a means to the end of relationships that are enduring and transcendent.

“What he did not pray for, you need not desire”

The key to happiness in this world and eternal reward in the next is using God’s creation for his glory and our good.

In his prayer for his followers shortly before his death, Jesus included this request: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Charles Spurgeon commented: “Jesus did not pray that you should be taken out of the world, and what he did not pray for, you need not desire.”

Instead, Spurgeon suggested: “Better far in the Lord’s strength to meet the difficulty and glorify him in it.” Then he asked, “Where should the physician be but where there are many sick?”

Where, indeed?

Note: In addition to The Daily Article, Denison Ministries produces First15, a daily devotional experience with God; Foundations with Janet, a Bible study resource for individuals and small groups; and Christian Parenting, resources to help parents raise children to know and love the Lord. These ministries are intended to work collectively to build a movement of culture-changing Christians as a catalyst for spiritual awakening and more transformation. I encourage you to try them today.

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