Is happiness in the Bible?

A Christian researcher reflects on God’s priorities for flourishing

One of the most frequent questions I am asked, when Christians find out that I am researching happiness, is along the lines of “Does God want us to be happy?” The question is actually quite difficult to answer, since there are a lot of things assumed in it. One is, what do you mean by “happy?” There are almost as many answers to this as there are people asking it. In the academic literature on happiness (yes, there is such a thing!) there is a certain level of greater clarity, but there is still a range of definitions of what psychologists and philosophers mean by “happiness.”

Aristotle writes of the life of balanced virtue. It is essentially to do with a life “lived well.”

One of the more common definitions is called the “eudaimonic” definition of happiness. Eudaimonia is a Greek word, and when it is found in ancient Greek literature – it used by Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle among others – is it usually translated into English as “happiness.” Plato thinks it is found in philosophical contemplation. Aristotle writes of the life of balanced virtue. It is essentially to do with a life “lived well” – the best kind of life, the life that most fulfils human potential and can be judged to have been a good life. This is what is considered the happy life.

This word was imported into modern psychology to capture an idea that happiness is not just about inner feeling but something more than that. Not everyone agrees – a great many, probably the majority of psychological researchers, still concentrate on happiness as positive inner experience. However, there are some who prefer a definition of happiness that has an objective component. This is more likely to be found by, for instance, economists and policy researchers who are looking to what makes for a happy society, or what kind of social priorities should be embedded into public policy to make sure the population is happy (which might be more important than, say, making sure the population is wealthy). Bhutan, noted for its emphasis on national happiness, is concerned with not just how the people are feeling in their internal emotions (which is considered a more individualistic, “Western” idea), but with how people are thriving in a more general sense.

Modern writers on happiness have long lists of what is considered necessary for human thriving.

However, for this definition of happiness to have some shape, it next has to be decided just what contributes to a life that is thriving. The content as to what makes for a life well lived varies greatly, depending to a large extent on the values of the person defining it. Aristotle, with his idea that the essence of being human is to be rational, thought that a rationally worked out ethical life was the best one. Some modern writers agree that the best life has to be moral, but their definition of what counts as moral behaviour might be very different from Aristotle’s. Others pick up on the idea that life must be about fulfilling human potential, however that is defined; this itself is often celebrated as the “meaning” of life.

Other modern writers on happiness have long lists of what is considered necessary for human thriving. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for instance, writes of many human capabilities, and sees the thriving life as the one that provides potential for these to be used. Her list includes basics such as material commodities necessary for health and living a “normal” life span, as well as things such as education and freedom of thought, experiencing emotions, relationships with others, recreation, political freedom and being secure against assault. Other writers will have different lists, probably with some overlap.

What about the Bible?

The word eudaimonia does not appear in the New Testament. Nor is it in the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek carried out a few centuries before Christ. It would seem, then, that if we want to know about happiness in the Bible, then this definition of happiness is not a good one to follow.

The biblical idea is a life of living righteously as given to us by God.

However, if we look beyond the word to the concept itself, there is a little more to say. For even if the Bible does not talk about eudaimonia per se, it certainly teaches us about what makes for a flourishing life, even in terms that secular writers on eudaimonic happiness might recognise.

For instance, Aristotle wrote of the virtuous person leading a flourishing life. This is definitely an idea we find in the Bible. Blessed is the man, Psalm 1 tells us, whose delight is in the law of the Lord. This is not ethics as Aristotle has it – it is not something we work out from rational principles (although biblical ethics are certainly rational); rather, the biblical idea is a life of living righteously as given to us by God, which cannot be separated from the covenants God makes with his people. Yet there are parallels to Aristotle. Contemplating the law and living it out lead to the best life. Indeed, the word “blessed” – ashr in the Hebrew – is sometimes translated as “happy” (for example, in the NIV).

We know we are not just living for this creation, but for the next one.

Other ideas found in the modern eudaimonic definition of happiness also appear in the Bible. It is good, and a blessing of God, to have created commodities. Israel is described as a land “flowing with milk and honey;” God blesses his people with food and other provisions. The new creation is described in terms of its plenty; many metaphors for heaven are to do with feasting. It is good to have relationships, and part of what God expects of us; Jesus summarises the law as loving our neighbour as well as ourselves. All sorts of things follow from that, to do with family, community, even politics. The Bible commends education and thinking, truth and knowing. A godly life is a thriving life, in many of the same terms as described by eudaimonic happiness researchers. This is hardly surprising: the people studied by those very researchers are created by God, after all.

However, there are differences. The Bible talks about living as humans in a much bigger world than is contemplated by most secular researchers. We know we are not just living for this creation, but for the next one. So when Jesus talks about the “blessed” person, he puts it in very different terms. Blessed are those who are poor, he says; those who mourn, the meek, those who are hungry, who weep, who are hated, excluded, reviled. This is the thriving life, in his terms – very different from what eudaimonic researchers tend to emphasise! Jesus is deliberately turning upside down what it is to be blessed.

Or is he? The blessed person in the Old Testament is the one living for God, whose delight is in the law, regardless of circumstances. Yes, created blessings are good, and we should enjoy them and be thankful for them. Yet there are greater priorities, and in this overlap of the ages now we can see those greater priorities in Jesus’s teaching. Blessed are those who live for the kingdom of God, now, even if it leads to worse temporal circumstances. These are the people who will receive great things in heaven, who will be rejoicing then – and indeed, can rejoice now in the knowledge of their membership of the kingdom.

Is happiness in the Bible? Eudaimonia the word may not be, but the Bible tells us how to live well, how to live the best life. The content of that life sometimes overlaps with what researchers, studying this creation, can see is good for us; but even more than that, the Bible tells us how to live well now not just in this creation but in the light of the next. That is the truly flourishing life.

Kirsten Birkett is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at Oak Hill Theological College, London. She has been working as Senior Research Fellow for Anglican Deaconness Ministries. She is writing a book on a theological approach to Happiness.