I wish I had a different life. I wish I was braver or prettier… or just happy. But it’s useless to dream, because nothing ever changes.
Toula, My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Hi! Hope you’ve having a nice Sunday so far. We’ve been talking about happiness lately: what it is and isn’t, and why Christians seem so unhappy as a group. Last time we touched on the Happy Christian Illusion, that veneer of happiness that Christians pretend to have for various reasons. Today we’ll talk about why that veneer is necessary, and why it covers such a huge core of unhappiness for so many people.
The quote up at the beginning of the post is from an old(ish) movie about a young woman who starts off very unhappy but becomes blissfully happy. I put it up there for a reason: she views happiness the same way I did once upon a time. And it was realizing our similarities that led me to start questioning an indoctrination that ran even deeper than what I’d accepted in Christianity.
I didn’t realize for a very long time why I had so much trouble finding happiness. Even after deconverting, I struggled to find my equilibrium. I’m not the only one who’s ever had trouble in that area, either. The happiness industry is a huge one, with books, seminars, and other materials promising hopeful, desperate people that if they follow the advertised program then they’ll finally find the happiness they seek. Most religions famously advertise themselves as the sole source of “real” happiness. And we can’t possibly overlook that failed social experiment that is the “self-esteem” trend in public education.
We are surrounded on all sides by hucksters promising that if we take this pill, buy this product, do these exercises, attend this lecture, buy this book, or listen to this tape or video, that we’ll be equipped with the tools we need to find happiness for life.
About the only people who actually benefit from these materials are their creators.
Happiness as a Commodity.
A while after deconverting, I began to notice something about these come-ons about happiness: they all treated the emotion like something separate from the rest of one’s life, like something poured over life like rum over fruitcake. Doing X, Y, and Z would never fail to capture happiness for an obedient and faithful adherent–which of course means that anybody who fails to become happy after doing those things didn’t do those things correctly.
A Christian minister, Rick Warren*, sells a lecture series that claims to teach people “How to be Happy No Matter What.” In his series, he stresses faith in Jesus, seeing bad situations as tests, and choosing to be happy. I left Christianity long before he got popular, but nothing in that workbook sounds unfamiliar to me. Happiness, in my old worldview, was something that could be granted, awarded, taken away, stolen, and willed into being–much like Christians’ view of faith. And once I finally made that connection, I perceived the fatal flaw in my old conceptualization of happiness:
Happiness is not actually a commodity, any more than faith is.
Happiness, like faith, grows out of what we experience, learn, do, think, accomplish, and see, and it withers through the same means. It’s not a separate thing that can be be given or taken, like a little figurine on a shelf that someone can pick up or set down. There is more than a little psychology at work here, yes, in that how we interpret a situation can drastically influence whether or not we can become or remain happy through or despite it, but even so, we’re still working with happiness being an outgrowth of our experiences, an emotion seen through the lens of our memories, experiences, and expectations.
If one could “choose” happiness or faith, then we wouldn’t see so many people around who’ve tried to do that but failed.
Certainly there’d be no need for seminar series and workbooks to teach people how to do something so simple, and Rick Warren and his fellow happiness hucksters would need to go get a real job.
Happiness as an External Force.
A lot of people seem like they’re waiting for happiness to find them. Toula, in that quote at the beginning of this post, certainly falls into that category. She’s in a rut, but more than that she’s desperately unhappy. “Nothing ever changes,” she sighs.
When I first saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I thought that it was going to be one of those tedious “a magical man rescues the heroine from herself” type of movies, but to my surprise, it wasn’t. Toula certainly is galvanized into action by her first meeting with Ian, but the first third of the movie wouldn’t have been a whole lot different had he shown up just that first time and never again. She goes through this whirlwind of self-improvement, making friends at the community college in which she enrolls, and obtaining a job she likes better than her old one at the family restaurant. She actively transforms her own life, and in the doing discovers real happiness for the first time. She’s already happy by the time Ian blows into her life again–and indeed, it’s her joyous behavior that catches his eye.
Happiness didn’t land in Toula’s lap because she stayed the same but “chose” to be happy despite her circumstances. She didn’t drill down on her religious faith or continue to negate her own needs, as Christianity would have advised her. She changed her own life and happiness bloomed in it as a natural outgrowth of the actions she took. She actively, consciously reached out to improve herself in various ways.
If you look at that Rick Warren workbook, you won’t see listed therein as ingredients to happiness anything that Toula did–or that I did, for that matter. Instead, happiness comes through faith and various forms of service to others, in his world, and is granted as a reward by Jesus to his truest followers.
But this vision only works in a world where Jesus is real and Christianity’s claims are true. In the real world those ideas fall apart completely.
Real Happiness vs. Fake Happiness.
When I was Christian, I was arrogant enough to think that the only real happiness in the world came from faith in Jesus. People who weren’t Christian–or strong enough Christians–might think they were happy, but they really weren’t. Demons could make people think they were happy too by thrilling them with illicit pleasures (such as drugs, rock concerts, or unapproved sex!). Only fervent Christians knew what true happiness was.
Testimonies abound about this strange demarcation between fake-happiness and real-happiness: “I thought I was happy in my sinful life, but I really wasn’t. Then I converted and discovered real joy!” Believers are acutely aware of how important it is that they appear to be happy. Our pal Rick Warren even said exactly this in a discussion about how to “get your joy back”:
When God’s children aren’t filled with joy, it makes God look bad. Cranky Christians are a bad witness. They look like they’ve been baptized in vinegar because they’re never really smiling. And that makes God look bad. Why? Because God wants us to be witnesses with our countenance.
The big problem with making happiness both a marketing gimmick and the result of following the Christian program is that people tend to play to the numbers they think are most important. Christians know that the appearance of happiness is one of the most important traits they could possibly display. They know that their religion’s major marketing thrust centers around its ability to make adherents happy. They know that their mythology declares repeatedly that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ should be, above all, happy.
So, unsurprisingly, a great many Christians become very good at displaying the appearance of happiness–whether they’re actually feeling happy or not.
Even more unsurprisingly, the same crowd of Christians pretending so desperately to be happy tend to react very defensively to non-believers’ declarations of happiness.
As they do with love and other feelings, they try to stake a monopoly on happiness itself. It was a problem for me that so many of the atheists I knew in college seemed much more contented with life than I did. The only method I had of dealing with their happiness was to tell them that they were in fact miserable but didn’t realize it. Of course, my innocent unilateral declarations were not met with awed, wide-eyed adulation and eager questions, but rather with snickers and more than a little indignation, which only fed my delusion that Satan was obviously tricking all those people. Today I see Christians constantly telling people much the same thing: that though they may think they are happy, really they’re not. They must convince those marketing targets that they are broken and in need of fixing so they can sell the product that Christianity offers. The product doesn’t make sense otherwise; people won’t want it unless they think they need it.
And as long as nobody remembers that Christians’ supernatural claims simply aren’t true and that their social ideas are based on a lot of folklore and wishful thinking rather than on how real people function in the real world, their teachings about happiness might well sound halfway plausible.
Entrusting Our Own Happiness to Others.
Probably the most harmful belief I had about happiness was that I should entrust my happiness to other people/entities: my parents, my spouse, my deity, you name it. I wasn’t allowed to pursue happiness on my own or to enact changes in my life purely to make myself more happy. Instead, I had to wait like a dog under the table for crumbs of happiness to fall from others’ hands.
In the happiness narrative I had put my faith into, if I did all the stuff that someone’s supposed to do, all the stuff society said I should do, then I’d be taken care of–particularly by my primary romantic partner. I’d put his happiness first and he’d put my happiness first, and in this manner we’d both become blissful. But even if I didn’t have a romantic partner, if I threw myself into “God’s” service, then I’d be happy doing all that volunteer work, church work, witnessing, and all the rest of the stuff Christians do to “advance the Kingdom.” In all cases, I viewed doing anything purely for myself as suspiciously selfish.
For the longest time, I denigrated 50/50 partnerships, where the people involved both give half of the work required in the relationship. I huffed (rather snootily) that 100/100 partnerships were what people should aspire to: both partners putting absolutely everything they had into the other person, with the other person doing the same. This was called “selfless love” and “sacrificial love,” and it was considered the loftiest form of love there was.
Like a lot of the other rosy visions one encounters in Christianity, this vision of perfect harmony doesn’t work quite so well in real life as it does in theory. I didn’t value myself or honor my own needs, and I strongly suspect that I attracted men who didn’t either. People don’t tend to value what’s given to them for free. Decent men were likely repelled by my willingness to abnegate myself, while selfish men saw that tendency as an invitation to take advantage of my generous nature. I wasn’t doing myself any favors, in short, by pursuing what I thought were these 100/100 relationships!
The only difference between Christian me and newly-deconverted me was that the Christian me had also imagined that Jesus would make her happy if she threw herself into obedient service to him–which also turned out to be untrue. For some reason, “Jesus” didn’t seem to care much about whether or not anyone was happy. (Hilariously, Christians’ response to that fact is usually to denounce people for holding them to the very promise their marketing makes to this exact effect.)
I still remember the very day I realized, with crystal-clarity, that if I wasn’t going to take my own happiness seriously that nobody else was going to do the job for me. That was a huge big deal for me. I’d already figured out that entrusting my freedom and rights to other people only resulted in my own victimization. Realizing that I needed to also take control of my own happiness was the next major step in my own personal growth. It took a little while to find balance, but I got there eventually.
One can certainly see why self-sufficiency so threatens Christianity’s marketing machine. For many years, they have been trying to convince people that they cannot be happy without Jesus and that dissenters are of necessity miserable people. Someone who lives a happy, fulfilled life while rejecting Christian scripts and narratives joggles the house of cards that is their entire ideology.
Most important of all, my happiness or unhappiness is not actually a selling point for my ideology. I didn’t leave Christianity because I was miserable, and I’m not a non-Christian because it makes me happy. I left Christianity because it isn’t objectively true, and I didn’t want to be part of a tribe as harmful as Christians are if their claims aren’t even true. Nor do I hold my current ideology because it makes me happy but because it fits with the reality I can observe around myself and the sum total of human scientific progress.
So if I feel unhappy sometimes, my worldview isn’t challenged. If I learn that a friend is sad, it doesn’t threaten to invalidate everything I think about the supernatural. I’m not selling anything to anyone, and neither are those I love. We’re free to feel whatever we happen to feel, and to give ourselves permission to feel it in the moment and to handle it in the most constructive way we can. And yes, sometimes even atheists feel unhappy or sad. That’s okay. It doesn’t make atheism wrong any more than Christianity is “proven” correct by the existence of a truly happy Christian. I’m not writing this post to say “NYAH NYAH, ATHEISTS ARE ALWAYS SO HAPPY AND CHRISTIANS ARE TOTES MISERABLE!” I’m writing it to say that the way that most Christians structure their social system all but ensures that they will have a tough time finding genuine happiness, and that unfortunately that social system bleeds through even into the lives of us non-believers if we’re not careful.
A Lesson That Was Hard-Won.
One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that anybody who demands that I constantly sacrifice myself sure ain’t making that demand for my own good.
The second hardest? Watch out for any group that claims that it holds the keys to true happiness. As seductive as their sales pitch might sound, such a group doesn’t actually know what happiness is or how healthy people pursue it.
What I want to do is seek instead objective truth, that web of all those little-f facts rather than the big-t Truths, and in that reality build a life that is conducive to my own happiness.
We’ll finish this series up next time by talking about some of the ingredients that go into happiness itself–see you then!
* Rick Warren himself seems to recognize that the pretendy funtime games he sells to the masses don’t apply to real life, despite whatever blithering nonsense he writes in his ridiculous and odious workbooks about choosing to be happy “no matter what”.