The Happiness Trap

Have you ever heard the phrase “do more of what makes you happy”? On the surface, this is a pretty innocent statement and to some, even good advice. In fact, our culture is pretty obsessed with happiness. Go on Amazon and look at how many books have happiness in the title. Go to Google and search for "happiness coaching." Look at how many people are waiting by their phone for you to cough up cash to learn to be happier. There are even university degrees that can teach you to teach people to be happier! We are also constantly being told, whether explicitly or implicitly, that we need this product or that new thing in our lives to be happy. We may be tempted to think- why wouldn’t we want to do more and/or have more of what makes us happy? Doesn’t the pursuit of happiness give us abundant life?

The answer to this question is tricky. Pursuing things that make us happy isn’t inherently bad, but it is certainly a slippery slope. Because of the cultural pressures surrounding happiness, we can begin to shift our focus away from being a surrendered follower of Jesus and put the pursuit of happiness at the top of the list. When we do this, we actually start to experience things that are the exact opposite of what we’re running after. Some recent research has found that as people place more importance on being happy, they become more unhappy and depressed. The pressure to be happy makes people less happy. Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.

The truth is, it’s so easy to forget that Jesus never promised His followers happiness. In John 14, we see Jesus talking to the disciples as he prepares them for what is to come. They need to know the truth so that they’re able to carry out their mission. In verse 6 (NIV), Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is IT. This is our foundation for our faith. In verse 12 (NIV), he says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Now we’re building upon the foundation. We believe in him, which drives our works, and he says we are destined to do even greater things than he did! Do you hear the purpose in Jesus’ words? In verses 18 and 19 (NIV), he continues, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” We’ve believed, we’re engaged in being the hands and feet of Jesus, and now Jesus promises us that he won’t leave us to labor in vain. Because he lives, we will live. He says this another way in John 10:10 (MSG), “A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”

Happiness is a perilous thing. It focuses our attention on ourselves and how we are feeling in the moment. But moments change. People change. Happiness will not stick around. It’s a season—a side effect of when things are going well and your dopamine levels are up. Happiness is great to enjoy in the moment, but to spend a lifetime chasing it warps it into the idol our culture has made it out to be. Just think about what the outcome might have been if the disciples had decided that they need to pursue happiness instead of Jesus’ mission after his death on the cross. Those were probably the darkest, most unhappy moments of their entire lives! Thankfully they were pursuing something with more lasting impact.

Jesus spent His entire time on earth not teaching us how to be happy, but how to be holy. He is the perfect example of what it looks like to sacrifice earthly happiness for God’s holiness. His ragtag group of disciples irritated and argued with him and each other, and he always knew one was destined to betray Him. But He spent time with them anyway, teaching them, loving them, pushing them to grow in holiness. Happiness is not what we are called to pursue. Holiness is. The abundant life Jesus promises? It can’t happen without holiness. So, if we look back at that phrase, it should look at little more like this:

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Take a minute and pray this prayer:

“God, I praise you that you don’t give up on me when I don’t make you happy. Thank you for your grace when I lose focus. I praise you that you teach me time and time again that happiness is not my ultimate goal. Your goal is not for me to be happy, but to be holy. I know that I am destined for trials—but that you are with me always and I can rejoice. God, help me to savor the happy moments and continue to teach me how to be holy. Amen.”


Erin is a speaker and leadership development professional who has been in the learning and development field for over 12 years. She has a unique ability to engage with her audience and create learning experiences that inspire change and action. She is poised, articulate and delivers her message with passion.

Erin feels that God has called her to use her professional skills to further His kingdom. She is passionate about helping people develop skills and knowledge that will empower them to answer Jesus’ call in their lives and understand how they are uniquely wired to respond to His leading. See Erin's other writings at: www.erhspeaks.com