A recent issue (January/February 2012) of Harvard Business Review caught my attention. The cover featured a smiley face and several articles under the larger title of “The Value of Happiness.” Indeed, I was intrigued why a premier secular business periodical was devoting most of the issue to happiness. It did not take me long to discover that their thesis was that happy employees in businesses were productive employees.
Happiness is, therefore, good for business. The problem is that there seemed to be no consensus on a definition of happiness.
More Than Money or GDP
To the credit of the authors of the various articles, they did not limit happiness to pure economic realities. Justin Fox presented a great overview of attempts to measure happiness from a secular perspective. He showed the data of the United Nation’s Human Development Report, and its rankings of countries by income. My speculation is that most of you would not have guessed all ten countries.
Top Countries by Income
- United Arab Emirates
- Hong Kong
- United States
The happiest people were not necessarily in the highest income countries. So he looked at more data from the United Nations, this time by quality of life.
Top Countries by Health, Longevity, Knowledge, and Income
- United States
- New Zealand
Even after adding such factors as health, longevity, and knowledge to income, there was no conclusion that these variables created a precise formula for happiness. The rankings did, however, make me want to visit Liechtenstein.
Getting a Bit Closer to the Church
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor and author of the 2006 bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, shared some of his findings in the issue of Harvard Business Review that made me think of the church and its role in the lives of its members. His research certainly did not have a religious or Christian foundation to it, but its conclusions can certainly be applied to the local church.
For example, in one revealing quote, Gilbert says, “If I had to summarize all the scientific literature on the causes of human happiness in one word, that word would be ‘social.’” The strength of our social network, those in our families, friends, and other places, largely determines happiness, according to Gilbert.
Another major common factor, he says, is altruism. The more we do for others, the happier we are. Finally, Gilbert notes that our happiness is also related to the frequency and consistency we are altruistic, or the frequency and consistency we participate positively in social networks. It’s a pattern or lifestyle, not just a one-time event.
Back to the Church
I was struck by the theme of the various articles in this issue of Harvard Business Review. Most of what the authors describe as being conducive to happiness is what the church should be doing every day. Christians should develop bonds with each other individually and in small groups. They should also expand their social networks to nonbelievers in order to have a gospel witness.
Local churches should likewise lead Christians toward opportunities to minister to others, what Harvard Business Review called “practicing altruism.” After all, that’s what the Great Commission and the Great Commandment are all about.
I appreciate the fine research and writings of this periodical. But I am frustrated that many churches fail to lead their members toward the true joy that comes with connecting to others and doing for others.
Somewhere in the span of local church history, we have turned our focus to activities, programs, and even entertainment as the unstated purposes of the church. In doing so, we have yielded our right to speak with authority about that which brings true joy. The consequence is that the church is being replaced with a new secular religion that is defining happiness for us.
It is time for our churches to get back to being churches.
Then, and only then, will people discover true gospel-centered joy.