I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s similar to one I wrote a few years ago, but thought the issues were worth giving another airing.
Last week saw the International Day of Happiness, launched by the United Nations in 2012 to give happiness, described as ‘a fundamental human goal’, a greater priority. And this week, the Office for National Statistics published a report, ‘Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK, 2015’, providing a snapshot of life across 1o domains of national well-being.
All this is part of an ongoing attempt to measure not just GDP, but GWB (general well-being) or GNH (gross national happiness). To some extent, it takes its lead from economists, but it’s also part of a larger trend to broaden our understanding of well-being beyond economic growth to embrace several areas – health, family, work, community, environment – all supported by an ever-increasing output in ‘happiness studies’.
Inevitably, not everyone holds the various factors to be of equal value, and it’s still not entirely clear how one measures and compares largely subjective indicators of happiness. Even so, this feels like a significant path to pursue, not least because all indications are that healthy relationships are a vital factor in human flourishing.
And that will come as no surprise to Christians. After all, we worship the three-in-one Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we believe that humans were created for relationship with one another and their surrounding environment; we follow the one who summed up God’s design for life in terms of love of God and neighbour. And – lest that becomes a measurement of performance – we know the call to love comes only because God himself has restored the most fractured relationship of all, that between himself and humanity, with all the implications for renewed relationships with each other that come about as a result.
Happiness too, in the sense of wholeness and well-being, goes back to God’s original intention for creation – not, perhaps, as the end of a search but as the by-product of a yet higher end. From a Christian perspective, happiness ultimately comes down to what and who we love. Our problem is that left to ourselves we attach love to things in disordered ways, leaving God out of the reckoning. When God acts to save us, he reorders our loves and affections, such that true happiness – far from being a pursuit of self-fulfilment – is rooted in a restored relationship with God and others.